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Wired for Sound? 

Burlington's newest café blends coffee and communications

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

Anyone peering into the new coffee shop on the corner of Pearl and North Winooski Avenue might presume from all the cappuccino-sipping, chess-playing, journal-scribbling patrons that this is just another Burlington java joint. But, come spring, a mini revolution could be brewing alongside the coffeepots at Radio Bean, shedding light on the shop’s seemingly nonsensical name.

“The table we’re sitting at right now is where we’re gonna put the deejay booth in the springtime,” says proprietor Lee Anderson, tracing a line in the air with his forefinger. “It will sort of wrap around the front window here.”

Clad in a green army jacket, Radio Bean’s 23-year-old ruler describes his plan to serve up low-power radio along with regular lattes — and turn the mike over to the community. “I’ve had this idea for years,” Anderson explains with an urgency that suggests a permanent caffeine buzz. “I want this place to be something people aren’t used to. We could broadcast poetry slams over the air, debates, open mikes with singing.”

Anderson grew interested in making waves as a punk-rock fan in Minneapolis, where his favorite station, “Revolution 105,” dished out rousing punk anthems by groups like The Replacements. When the small station was taken over by Disney and started playing “the best hits of yesterday and today,” Anderson took it hard. Soon after, he got the idea for a restaurant-radio station, but thought it would happen “maybe when I turned 40.”

His dream got a jumpstart last March when he spotted a “for rent” sign outside the empty storefront in Burlington that was previously home to Java Love. Inspired, Anderson dropped out of the University of Vermont, where he was majoring in English literature, and set up shop with longtime friend and artist-carpenter Jake Robertson. The two brought new life to the century-old space, chipping away at the cement walls to expose original brick.

Artistic touches appear everywhere: Candles throw light across red-painted tables lined with glinting metal; teapots steam on coiled-copper holders. Two wooden easy chairs, built by Anderson, face the steamy window. Even the candy case is filled with art: truffles with creamy mocha centers, handcrafted by local chocolatier and New England Culinary Institute grad Michael Pelton.

There’s a good vibe going at Radio Bean, but as yet no low-power FM signal. Anderson is one of many locals applying for a LPFM license this month. Generally operated by schools, churches and community organizations, the resulting stations broadcast at between 10 and 100 watts with a range of up to 3 1/2 miles. Anderson’s chances of obtaining a license have been reduced due to legislation tucked into a year-end budget bill signed by former President Clinton. The amendment, backed by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, inhibits plans by the Federal Communications Commission to license LPFM radio stations to community organizations.

The Capitol Hill concern is interference, common in big, densely populated cities or when stations are spaced too closely together on the FM dial. Anderson maintains the likelihood of serious radio interference in Burlington is slim. He is one of many critics who believe the amendment is an attempt by commercial stations, owned by mega-media corporations, to eliminate the competition presented by small, independent interests.

“There needs to be another view, an opposing force,” says Anderson. “That’s what I want my radio station to be.”

As a result of the amendment, the number of LPFM stations being given away nationally has been reduced to fewer than half. Applicants in 40 states have been awarded licenses so far. Contenders in the remaining 10 states, including Vermont, will apply this month.

“Competition is fierce,” Anderson muses. “In Burlington there may only be one or two… This licensing will be available once — until the FM dial is full.”

And if he doesn’t qualify? Anderson has already begun carrying out his mission in other ways. He’s teamed up with Big Heavy World’s Jim Lockridge, and recently began an acoustic guitar night the first and third Mondays of the month, which is broadcast live on Big Heavy World Web site at www.bigheavyworld.com. Web radio gives him an instant potential connection to listeners all over the world.

“Monday, during the show, I called up my mom and she was able to hear all the coffee shop noise just by going online,” Anderson marvels.

With Burlington venues offering live music, what’s the benefit of listening to a local band perform online? Web radio “may be an alternative way to reach a larger audience,” muses Lockridge. “Bands tell their fan base to listen in. You get people from elsewhere. And you reach people who are under 21 who couldn’t go if they wanted to.”

One of Radio Bean’s major draws is it doesn’t exclude the under-21 crowd. Anyone can enjoy the weekly music menu, offering everything from gypsy mandolin to toe-tapping bluegrass. And even without the low-power “radio” half of the shop running, the “bean” seems to be generating enough energy to go around. There’s enough on the drink menu to keep wannabe radio revolutionaries wired, from Café Mocha to Anderson’s eccentric brainchild — a “Five Dollar Shake” comprising oatmeal stout, with a shot of maple syrup and espresso.

Anderson believes in buying locally as much as possible. “I didn’t realize how much a small business opening up stimulates the local economy; everything from the bagel guy, to the guy who makes my chocolates, the biscotti, the dairy farmers…” The only exception to the Green Mountain theme is the beans themselves.

“We buy organic, fair-traded coffee, grown by members of a Mayan cooperative in Chiapas, Mexico,” Anderson explains, noting that all the coffee is prepared by the potent French-press method.

And never mind mega-commercial radio: With Starbucks scheduled to open on the Burlington Marketplace in August, Anderson will be going up against the big guys in more ways than one. He remains confident. “Starbucks coming gives me a measuring stick,” he says, “to see exactly what I’m not.”

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