Radio station promotes peaceful debate

Pastor Tim Geist of the Bible Baptist Church debates with atheist activist and radio show host Tom Smith on Whidbey AIR last week Wednesday. The station promotes thoughtful and respectful debate to often fiery issues. - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Pastor Tim Geist of the Bible Baptist Church debates with atheist activist and radio show host Tom Smith on Whidbey AIR last week Wednesday. The station promotes thoughtful and respectful debate to often fiery issues.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

An outspoken baptist pastor and an atheist activist went head-to-head over the issue of public prayer on a radio show last week.

The result was not what most Americans would expect from talk radio.

The two men gently and respectfully explained their positions to each other. There was no righteous anger or sarcasm, just good humor and intelligent conversation.

It was a perfect example of what Whidbey AIR is aiming for, volunteer producer Gwen Samelson said afterward.

“You guys were amazing. I got choked up a couple of times because it was so respectful,” she said.

“It’s important work that you did here.”

Whidbey AIR, which stands for All Internet Radio, is a nonprofit organization and an all-volunteer, public radio station online at

The purpose of the station, Samelson said, is to provide Whidbey-related programming that’s thoughtful and adds to the community dialogue; she’s not looking for politics as usual.

Harry Anderson, treasurer for the station, agrees.

“Whidbey AIR is never going to be talk radio as it has become in America,” he said. “There’s no yelling at each other. It’s not political.”

The experiment in public radio evolved from a low-power FM station and is truly flourishing as shows such as Tom Smith’s SeculaRadio gain attention.

Smith, an Oak Harbor resident, invited Pastor Tim Geist of the Bible Baptist Church for the taping of his show last week Wednesday afternoon.

The two men met at an Oak Harbor City Council meeting where they spoke on opposite sides of the debate on whether there should be prayers at the start of council meetings.

Geist admitted he was a little worried at first, but felt it could be a valuable dialogue.

“It’s important to show that two people with completely different views can sit together in a respectful manner and just agree to disagree,” he said.

Smith has aired his “show without a prayer” for the last four months and has already attracted attention from Seattle media. He originally thought of it as a way to build membership in the Whidbey Island Free Thinkers, a group of freethinkers and non-believers.

“It’s all about doing the show now,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Other shows on the station focus on a wide variety of topics, including music, the arts, history and writing.

The common thread is Whidbey Island.

Anderson explained that the origins of the station can be traced to a group of artists and writers in Langley who wanted to start a local public radio station about 10 years ago. The only area they could find with a low-power FM signal available was Coupeville.

The group applied for, and received, a license. KWPA went on the air in 2008.

The station originally shared a tiny space with the harbormaster at the Coupeville Wharf. Samelson fondly remembers wrapping up in blankets in the winter and dealing with the Coast Guard radio intermittently going off, interrupting radio shows.

“It was old-fashioned, country radio,” she said.

“Someone says it was like Northern Exposure,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the station also went online, both as a live stream and podcasts. Eventually, the members realized that the cost of maintaining an FM station that reached only a handful of Central Whidbey residents wasn’t worth it.

Last year the FM signal was turned off and WhidbeyAIR was born.

“It’s the best decision we ever made,” Anderson said. “It really fired us up.”

The station is now located in a much more spacious room in a building on Front Street.

One remaining hurdle, Anderson said, is that some people in older generations may not realize how simple it is to connect to internet radio. He points out that people can listen to the live stream or podcasts of archived shows on computers, smart phones, radios in newer cars or TVs connected to the internet.

“The lines are really blurring between Internet broadcast and radio broadcast,” he said.

Anderson said he believes the best is yet to come for the little station. He’s looking forward to shows on gardening and local news; he might even fill a slot playing old vinyls from his collection.

Samelson suggested a show that would feature the families of deployed members of the Navy; they could easily listen from overseas.

What the station needs most is volunteers.

Anderson said he’s looking for people willing to learn editing or engineering, which are both a lot easier than they sound. He also needs board members and people to do administrative work.

Of course, the members welcome folks who have an idea for a show.

“There are so many people on Whidbey who have done amazing things elsewhere,” Anderson said.

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