It wasn’t so many years ago that Steve Bass was riding the roads, playin’ guitar in a band, rockin’ and rollin’ and hair down to–

Oh, wait a minute. That was a long time ago, back when your band could get on hometown radio and your radio was AM. Back in the ’60s.

Today, Bass, who’s bought, sold and rented music and lighting equipment for the last 25 years, is off to meet with “an investor”–well, maybe he’ll invest–because that’s what you do when you’ve bought yourself an AM station in the 21st century and your aim is to take it back to the future.

“We are hard-core lookin’ for investors,” is what the 51-year old Bass would like the world to know about WBZB-1090, his little station that could.

Never heard it? The key word is “could.” So far, it’s struggling. But put Bass’s ’60s sensibilities together with his digital, post-2006 dream, and you could have a good old radio company that features local talent playing in local markets–and going head-to-head in all of them with the homogenized playlists of the corporate radio goliaths.

Imagine: A station gets a new CD from “Memphis”–heretofore unknown Chapel Hill rockers–and actually listens to it, likes it and puts it on the air. The same day. In the Triangle.

That’s WBZB.

Now imagine that WBZB owns a sister station in Charlotte that plays the Queen City’s bands. And a station in Greensboro that plays the Triad’s bands. And so on.

Imagine a local station in every market in America, playing local music.

That’s the dream.

And now for the reality. WBZB is transmitting on 800 watts of power from Clayton, in Johnston County, which means you’re not going to hear it north of about South Saunders Street and the I-40 Beltline in Raleigh. It’s losing money, notwithstanding that Bass bought it for just $1,000–no, that’s not a typo, just the three zeros–and is running it on a shoestring budget out of an office next door to his equipment shop in West Raleigh.

There’s a reason the old owner let the station go cheap.

The good news is that WBZB is doing Bass’s thing–playing Fathead Otis, playing Big Rick and the Bombers, playing all local music, all the time. Or dawn till dusk, anyway, because for now, the low-power AM stations have to get off the air after sundown to make room for the big boys up there in the ionosphere.

No kidding, AMs transmit up and down, fighting the sunspots, while the FMs transit sideways, or something … anyway, the daytime sun limits how far an 800-watt transmitter on the 1090 frequency can reach, but when the sun goes down, the same 800 watts would go too far, running into the 1090 signal from Baltimore, which is WBAL, the 50,000-watt home of the Baltimore Orioles.

Think WPTF-AM in Raleigh, which on a clear night can be heard up in northern Virginia, thanks to its 50,000 watts and no competition allowed at 680 on your AM dial, or 670 and 690 for that matter, or 660 and 700 even. (AM “bleeds,” you see.)

But if WBZB’s cramped transmission is the bad news, the good news–maybe it’s good–is that the world of radio is about to change big time. Digital transmission is coming, Bass says, and when it does it’ll obviate the bleeding and clarity issues and put AM on an equal footing with FM. Not only that, it’ll triple the number of AM stations allowed on the broadcast band, double the allowable FMs, and make it possible to narrowcast videos and niche music in small digital “packages” within the broadband frequencies (at 1091, say) courtesy of modern compression technologies.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) makes the rules for radio, and unless it backs off, it’s saying that all AMs must be digital by ’06, which is why the race for capital is on today.

It’s a race for high stakes, Bass says. Yes, he got in cheap, but all he got for his $1,000 was a license and the right to start spending if he wanted to survive.

Consider: At the same time he bought WBZB, Clear Channel was buying a 1,000-watt station in Bakersfield, Calif., for $1.4 million. But Clear Channel wasn’t starting from scratch. It owns more than 1,300 stations nationwide, including four in the Triangle. Each one is plugged into an established CC format–93.9 FM, a Raleigh station, for example, uses the soft-rock playlist, while 100.7 FM, from Rocky Mount, plays the oldies.

Elsewhere, you’ve read how tightly wrapped these national playlists are, and how it’s virtually impossible for local talent, no matter how good, to get on them.

That’s the dominant model: The mega-corporation, a coast-to-coast network of stations, and national programming that lets it operate all of them cheap. When the new AM and FM stations go up for bid, the mega-corporations will be there to scoop them up, unless …

The WBZB model is the exact opposite. When it plays oldies, it’s not the Temptations, it’s Flat Duo Jets and Arrogance. Instead of Shania, it’s Tift. It’s Mama Tribe and Auto Mag and Bluesville, all local, and all chosen personally by Bass, station manager Ben Alexander or one of the part-time DJs, who include Shane Gentry (aka Flash Tattoo) weekday mornings; Carl Benton, who does the Acoustic Alarm Clock show Sunday mornings; John Hook, Beach Music, 11-2 p.m. Sunday; and Ryan King, Mosh Pit, 1-3 p.m. Saturday (repeated 4-6 p.m. Thursday).

Call it the subversive model (Bass says little stations like his are “the leper colonies of the industry”): Smaller networks, the stations are local and so is the programming, and instead of the economies of national scale, you have pride of place and audiences with a stake in what they’re hearing.

Says Alexander: “This area has talent that can kick the butts of national acts in every genre.” He knows, because every day the CDs come in to the station–taped to the door, hung from a tree, a dozen of them or so every week. “I’ll go to the supermarket wearing a WBZB shirt,” he says, “and people see it and go, ‘My son’s in a band, my daughter’s in a band, wait here,’ and they’re out to the car and back with the music so I can listen to it.”

But it does come down to money. The FCC may put all the new digital frequencies up for bid, which will put Bass and his partners, Cisco Systems techie Gary Stone and Andy Mullin, a contractor, up against national money. Bass is hoping the FCC will make some allowances for diversity of ownership, but even at that, his company needs money.

Thousands of dollars to get a toehold. To go national? $20 million is mentioned.

Already, Bass and company have run short. They wanted live DJs on every WBZB program. They’ve cut back, and a lot of what’s on the air is computer-driven (after Alexander programs it). They’d rented a spiffy studio in Garner. They’ve given it up. The sales staff’s been cut to one.

“It’s a bad economy, for one thing. Radio’s a tough sell in the best of times,” Bass says, gesturing broadly. “Against the big boys, we need more investors to be able to turn up the volume.”

Bass is chasing a big dream, but trying to go step by step at the same time. A spurt of publicity in the fall put him on a plane to Denver at the invitation of Phil Anchutz, the media billionaire who owns, among other things, the Denver Nuggets. $20 million? Maybe. But Anchutz would need control.

But Bass isn’t selling control, because the point isn’t to do it the Anchutz way, or the Clear Channel way, it’s to do it, well, his way, which is the same way radio used to do it when Alan Freed would pluck musicians off the streets of Harlem and put them on his radio station playing their “skeeter music,” which he renamed “rock ‘n’ roll.”

“I’m in this for the musicians who have supported me in my business for 25 years,” Bass says. “I’m in this because, back when everybody wanted to be the next Phil Collins, I wanted to be the next Phil Specter, and the frustration is that I’ve seen so many great bands and they take their stuff to the radio stations and it goes right in the trash.”

So, next step: Take WBZB to 1,600 watts of power, which will carry the signal to Durham. Then pump it up some more, and go up to Virginia and down to South Carolina, and maybe apply for some of the new AM bandwith coming on line between 1610 and 1710 on your dial, which would allow 24 hour broadcasting. And look for that small station in Charlotte, and the one in Greensboro …

“We taking an old technology and maneuvering it to work for a modern time,” Bass says. “And, for lack of a better term, not have to kiss butt and be owned by the corporate beast.” EndBlock