When Hurricane Ian knocked out power to more than 230,000 Sarasota County residents last September, many people couldn’t look to the internet or their television to provide them with up-to-date news. But if they turned their radio dial to 96.5 WSLR, they would have heard local hurricane coverage and the voice of Arlene Sweeting.
“We set up a mobile studio, camped out and broadcast from there,” Sweeting says. “Even through a hurricane, we were going to provide services to our community.”
That’s nothing new. When Sweeting flipped the switch for WSLR’s first live broadcast more than 17 years ago, her intent was to provide local and diverse news to the Sarasota area. Even back then, it was clear that regional news coverage was suffering because of media consolidation driven by giant corporations. “The local newspapers were going away,” Sweeting says. “Where are people going to get their information? Who is going to represent the underserved communities? We knew we had to create a place for a public square.”
Sweeting first got involved with community activism in 2000, when she ran for a seat in the Florida Legislature. “I was teaching middle school science up in west Bradenton then,” she says. “I was getting more and more frustrated with the state of Florida—with its poor education and environmental policies.”
Sweeting and a slew of volunteers ran an energetic campaign, but ultimately lost a close race. Instead of feeling defeated, Sweeting used that momentum and community to take her next step. “We had to do something to sustain that engagement,” she says. “How do we keep people informed and engaged?”
Sweeting and her partner, Dave Beaton, decided to start a progressive community coffee house. In 2002, they purchased an old Greyhound bus station in Bradenton and opened the first Fogartyville, where they offered food, drinks, community talks and musical performances. “We never made any money,” Sweeting says. “We couldn’t even afford to pay a cook, so I had to do all the cooking.”
As beloved as the coffee shop was, Sweeting wanted to reach even more people. Through a Clinton-era policy, a low-power radio station frequency became available to a local nonprofit. In 2004, Sweeting partnered with the New College Student Alliance and 96.5 WSLR was born.
Since then, the radio station and the Fogartyville Community Media and Arts Center (which moved from Bradenton to the Rosemary District in 2007) has been a force for local diversity initiatives. Sweeting became acutely aware of the need for representation and justice after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and used her influence at WSLR and Forgartyville to address pressing issues of racism and police violence.
In 2021, the organization’s board drafted an Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access Policy that promised to “address the inequity of existing privilege and to reflect the diverse cultures, issues and life experiences of residents of the greater Sarasota area.” Through Sweeting’s leadership, undoing racism workshops, the Manasota Anti-Racism Coalition and the Peace Education and Action Center have all found homes at the WSLR and Fogartyville campus.
Just after Sweeting flipped the switch 17 years ago to bring WSLR to life, a volunteer asked her what “FM” stood for. “I said ‘frequency modulation,’” Sweeting says. “The volunteer said, ‘No, no, no. It stands for effing magic.’ She was right.”