Radio Is About to Get Better

The FCC is finally ready to re-open its application process for low-powered FM stations. Who’s ready to rock the mic?

Kenneth Rapoza April 28, 2012

Organizers with the Prometheus Radio Project demonstrate in Washington, D.C., in April 2009. (Photo courtesy of Prometheus Radio via Flickr)

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion (FCC) is set to increase the num­ber of low-pow­ered FM (LPFM) sta­tions after a 12-year hia­tus caused by a suc­cess­ful cam­paign against com­mu­ni­ty radio by the Nation­al Asso­ci­a­tion of Broad­cast­ers (NAB), a lob­by group for major com­mer­cial media. Much to the joy of com­mu­ni­ty radio activists, hun­dreds of new radio sta­tions will pop up in cities across the coun­try. And they will all be owned…by you. Want to be your neigh­bor­hood’s newest block par­ty DJ, or run the local equiv­a­lent of Democ­ra­cy Now? Your win­dow has opened. But not for long.

LPFM is like local public radio, only without all the classical music and syndicated shows like Wait, Wait... Don't Tell Me!. It's a niche, and doesn't necessarily compete with the commercial and big public broadcasters.

Back in the late 1970s, most Amer­i­cans got their glimpse of the inner work­ings of a radio sta­tion from the sit­com WKRP in Cincin­nati. WKRP was­n’t big mon­ey glam. This was Cin­ci, after­all, not Los Ange­les. It was down to earth. It was prac­ti­cal­ly grass­roots. DJs John­ny Fever and Venus Fly­trap inter­viewed local bands, not the Bee Gees.

But just 20 years lat­er, the radio land­scape has changed. It is most­ly run by large sta­tions like KISS-FM, owned by Clear Chan­nel Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, the guys who sign the checks of Ryan Seacrest, a radio per­son­al­i­ty who needs no introduction.

Pat Feghali, 29, needs an intro­duc­tion. She’s one-part gui­tarist from indie rock band Slack Pan­ther, one-part host of Queen City Awe­some, which airs Mon­day and Wednes­day on WVQC in Cincin­nati to 95.7 FM. WVQC is oper­at­ed by Media Bridges and is one of the largest LPFM sta­tion with­in the top 30 media mar­kets. It’s help­ing peo­ple in that city con­nect through the free pub­lic air­waves in ways larg­er cities cannot.

I’m not look­ing for a career in broad­cast­ing or any­thing,” Feghali tells me. WVQC DJs and show hosts are vol­un­teers. They are trained by Media Bridges on how to use a sound­board and run a radio pro­gram. I’m into the local music scene and this show I do with my lead singer [Bree Blis­ters] gives us a chance to inter­view local bands. If not for LPFM, there is no way I would have done this. And most of these musi­cians would not get an oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss their music in this for­mat. I don’t know where it will lead. I just know we are hav­ing a great time.”

There are about 800 LPFM sta­tions nation­wide, small 100-watt sta­tions with a reach of three and half miles. LPFM launched in 2000, and Media Bridges applied for its license a year lat­er. They were grant­ed a per­mit sev­en years lat­er and did­n’t go on air until 2010. To date, WVQC has over 40 local­ly pro­duced shows on top­ics rang­ing from the para­nor­mal to issues in the gay com­mu­ni­ties to old school hip-hop.

Mon­ty Roo is WVQC’s ver­sion of Ed Lover, spin­ning throw­backs to days of Yo! MTV Raps Today.” I’m play­ing stuff you don’t hear on com­mer­cial radio any­more unless they have a blast from the past’ hour. I’m putting up Pub­lic Ene­my. MC Lyte. I get callers that appre­ci­ate what I do and I think it rounds out Cin­cy’s com­mer­cial hip hop sta­tions that are only going to play new music,” he says.

At the time Media Bridges applied for its radio license, small, pirate radio sta­tions had popped up around the coun­try, air­ing inde­pen­dent con­tent like Mon­ty Roo’s Nuff Nuff Sounds that were essen­tial­ly a voice of protest against radio con­sol­i­da­tion, stan­dard­ized top 40 play lists and syn­di­cat­ed pro­gram­ming. They did­n’t have broad­cast licens­es, but they often had the sup­port of their com­mu­ni­ty and even local leg­is­la­tures despite the fact that they were ille­gal. The strength of the pirate radio move­ment, along with con­cerns about the decline of local con­tent, influ­enced the FCC to legal­ize LPFM.

On July 2, 2010, Media Bridges left the lone­ly Inter­net radio world to become a full-fledged brick-and-mor­tar radio sta­tion. But that would be the last time any Amer­i­can city would get an LPFM station.

That’s because short­ly after the FCC rule was launched, the NAB worked with Con­gress to cre­ate the Radio Broad­cast­ing Preser­va­tion Act. Its goal was clear: to pro­hib­it the FCC from estab­lish­ing rules autho­riz­ing the oper­a­tion of new, low pow­er FM radio sta­tions. It passed in April 2000 and mod­i­fied the ear­ly local radio laws.

Under those ini­tial laws, LPFM sta­tions could be set up in cities where there was space with­in three clicks of the radio fre­quen­cy dial. So if a high-pow­ered sta­tion was at 90.1, then the near­est an LPFM sta­tion could be locat­ed would be 90.9 (U.S. fre­quen­cies are in odd num­bers), or going the oth­er way, 89.3. That made it impos­si­ble for LPFM to set up in big cities – but NAB want­ed to make it even hard­er. Its leg­is­la­tion required a dis­tance of four adja­cent fre­quen­cies, tak­ing LPFM out of most mar­kets small­er than Cincin­nati. NAB con­vinced Con­gress that hav­ing a low pow­ered sta­tion so close on the dial to their sta­tions would cause inter­fer­ence. Com­mu­ni­ty radio advo­cates at the Prometheus Radio Project com­pared that claim to the beam of 10,000-watt light­house being cut by the light of a 100-watt bulb.

Nev­er­the­less, the FCC effec­tive­ly shut down the pro­gram, until the odds were better.

The odds are now better.

On Jan. 5, 2011, Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma signed the lat­est Local Com­mu­ni­ty Radio Act into law. It took a lit­tle over a year to get it passed after some back and forth with NAB lob­by­ists, pro-LPFM guys like Prometheus, Media Access Project and Con­gress. Oba­ma’s sig­na­ture changes the Radio Broad­cast­ing Preser­va­tion Act, allow­ing for LPFM to set up three adja­cent clicks away, not four, and even allows for two adja­cent clicks in large cities, pro­vid­ing LPFM appli­cants can prove they won’t cause inter­fer­ence to their neigh­bors. That’s the new rule. That’s the com­pro­mise NAB agreed to.

Now the FCC is re-ener­gized and open to pub­lic com­ment about how the waivers will work until May 7. A rul­ing is expect­ed lat­er this year.

In big cities, the sec­ond adja­cent rule waiv­er is going to be impor­tant. In the small­er cities, just going back to the third adja­cent fre­quen­cy on the dial will be enough to flood the FCC with radio appli­ca­tions. The num­ber of LPFM sta­tions will dou­ble, maybe triple,” says Brandy Doyle, pol­i­cy direc­tor at the Prometheus Radio Project.

In cities like Phoenix, the rule would give them room for three new sta­tions if they were only allowed to build with­in three clicks on the dial. That goes up to 16 new sta­tions if they can go live with­in sec­ond adja­cent frequencies.

Two years ago, we worked in good faith with the LPFM com­mu­ni­ty on com­pro­mise leg­is­la­tion that lift­ed some of the third adja­cent chan­nel restric­tions on low pow­er radio. How­ev­er, we have con­cerns that waiv­ing pro­tec­tions for sec­ond adja­cent chan­nels will result in very real and very seri­ous inter­fer­ence for mil­lions of radio lis­ten­ers,” says Den­nis Whar­ton, a spokesman for NAB.

The NAB appears will­ing to bend, but no one can say how much – not even the NAB, because it all depends on their mem­bers and on a case-by-case basis. They want the FCC to require sta­tions to prove they will not inter­fere with near­by sta­tions with­in two clicks of their radio real estate. Oth­er than that, noth­ing real­ly stands in the way of the Unit­ed States get­ting hun­dreds of new 100-watt LPFM stations.

LPFM is like local pub­lic radio, only with­out all the clas­si­cal music and syn­di­cat­ed shows like Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!. It’s a niche, and does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly com­pete with the com­mer­cial and big pub­lic broad­cast­ers. In most cas­es, it’s not even going after the same under­writ­ers. (Yes, some­one still has to pay for the rent and the equipment.)

So why is it even needed?

Cheryl Eagle­son, a mem­ber of the radio advi­so­ry com­mit­tee at Media Bridges and host of Alter­nat­ing Cur­rents, a talk show for Cincin­nati’s gay and les­bian com­mu­ni­ty, says LPFM helps peo­ple define who they are in their part of the world. It’s the small­er pic­ture, not the big pic­ture, you car­ry around with you.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had peo­ple come up to me and say they’ve lis­tened to my show when they were still in the clos­et,” she says. They’d lis­ten to me when cut­ting the lawn, in their car, going for a jog, because it was impor­tant to them to know that they had peo­ple liv­ing right near them who had the same problems.”

LPFM lets locals know they’re not alone. Immi­grants in Phoenix want to hear about immi­grant prob­lems and solu­tions in Phoenix, not in Miami.

We’re form­ing a coali­tion of (Mex­i­can and Cen­tral Amer­i­can) immi­grants to apply for a license,” says Luis Avi­la, pro­duc­er of El Break Radio in Phoenix. We want to be ready when that win­dow opens.”

That win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty is expect­ed to open lat­er this year. Any­one inter­est­ed in build­ing their own radio net­work needs to start think­ing about the appli­ca­tion now, Doyle says.

The appli­ca­tion win­dow will only be open for a week or two and then clos­es for many years as the FCC goes through requests for an LPFM antennae.

Some­times life imi­tates art. In the sec­ond sea­son of WKRP in Cincin­nati, Venus Fly­trap accept­ed a job as pro­gram direc­tor at WKR­P’s urban con­tem­po­rary com­peti­tor, WREQ. Like the sta­tions of today, the fic­tion­al WREQ was an all-auto­mat­ed sta­tion where all the pro­gram­ming deci­sions were made from cor­po­rate head­quar­ters. Venus turned down the job to stick with WKRP.

There are peo­ple who lis­ten to NPR who would nev­er lis­ten to KISS-FM, and vice ver­sa. … You turn on where you feel at home,” Eagle­son says. Noth­ing is more home than local com­mu­ni­ty radio.”

This report­ing is sup­port­ed by The Media Consortium.

A long­time reporter and for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Jour­nal, Ken­neth Rapoza is an In These Times colum­nist who writes about the news busi­ness. His work has also appeared in The Amer­i­can Prospect, The Nation and at Salon​.com. He can be reached at ken@​inthesetimes.​com.
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