Rainier Avenue Radio Builds Community One Listener at a Time

Tony Benton
Illustration by Kathryn Rathke

In the overlap of opportunity, ability and personal responsibility lies destiny, which is what brought Tony Benton to Rainier Avenue Radio. Born and raised in the South End, Benton got into professional radio in the early ’90s, first at KFOX AM and later at KUBE FM, where he hosted the Sunday morning talk show and later worked as director of public affairs. In his 17 years with Clear Channel Communications, he saw the radio industry change dramatically, leaving behind its grassroots origins for corporate homogeneity. In 2015, Benton was instrumental in obtaining a new low-power FM signal for Rainier Valley Radio, a South Seattle station he helped build. He left following conflict with the station’s board of directors, launching Rainier Avenue Radio online in 2017 as the community-oriented media outlet he envisioned. With a stentorian timbre and oratorical elocution, Benton hosts on-air panels, covers local high school basketball live and oversees the 30-plus DJs and shows the station hosts in its around-the-clock broadcasting.

Has anybody ever told you you have a radio voice?
All the time.

What does that mean to you?
To me it means that I am sharing information that people are listening to, and that’s why I’m talking. [laughs]

That’s pretty simple. And something you’re uniquely suited for.
I [initially] didn’t want to be on the air. I figured you had enough guys out there who get to be on the air and go, “What’s up, dog? Here’s the latest cut from Boys II Men!” I’m not going to do that. I’m going to be myself—and I’m still Black. This is how I talk. [laughs] For me that was important, to have a voice on the air that was Black just talking to the Black community. Not trying to be an on-air personality, not trying to be the coolest, hippest guy on the radio. Just a person communicating to other people.

Media literacy is a huge component of what you’re doing at Rainier Avenue Radio.
Before I started creating a radio station I created the Creative Arts Digital Media Academy, which was a training program. Because if you’re going to have a community radio station and it’s not just going to be the usual suspects, you have to train the community about what it is to do what they’re trying to do. People who don’t have a background in communications or journalism or broadcast. People who are intimidated by technology. We have to begin the process of educating the community.

Within that framework we taught people about the digital divide. About trusting your sources. About understanding the difference between opinion, fact-based opinion and fact. About the inverse pyramid. About where’s your media coming from? Who’s in charge of your media? Look at the faces. Do any of the faces of people who are in charge of the media look like you? This is why you need to be a content creator. Are you wondering why you’re not hearing about what’s taking place in your community? [It’s because] nobody in your community’s making decisions.

Broadcasting online seems to be its own unique beast.
Are we a radio station? Some people would say no because we’re not on an AM or FM signal. But we’re a radio station because we provide the community with a resource that you can listen to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We’re not a podcast. I’m kind of shifting into calling us a broadcast media network, but that’s a lot to say. What the hell is that? Say “radio,” people know what you’re talking about. And so it’s an evolution of radio. It’s more than just a signal transmission now.

The point of community radio being to cut through the rest of the media—broadcast, social, whatever—and reach a very specific, localized audience. Provide the community with a trusted resource that they can access. There’s all types of mass communication coming at you from so many different areas—how do you get through that in order to find the message? I like radio because it allows for sensory perception. You have to visualize. You have to explain. You create theater of the mind.

Rainier Avenue Radio broadcasts from Columbia City and is streamable online.