High Intensity Low Power Radio


They bought their equipment on e-Bay. Their antenna is attached to a water pipe on the roof. They have only two staff members, but more than fifty people volunteer in the studio on their time off from jobs as factory workers, busboys, and grocery clerks. Few at the station speak English. Some are illiterate. No one has any previous experience in radio. It's WSBL-LP in South Bend, Indiana, and it's low-power FM.

In the increasingly corporate world of radio, low-power FM isn't about how far your signal reaches but how near. These are neighborhood stations with 100-watt signals that travel single-digit miles. They are run by civil rights organizations, by environmental activists, by church groups and school districts. They are voices that have either been pushed out of the radio spectrum or never invited into it, and the appetite for them speaks to a growing need in this country for community. And with a recent technical study providing leverage in low-power's struggle with big radio, there just might be more of them on air.

Low-power FM licenses were introduced in January 2000 under William E. Kennard, the former Federal Communications Commission chairman. The move was partly a strategy to control the proliferation of unlicensed pirate channels, and partly a reparation for the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated radio and set the stage for media consolidation. The idea was simple: Low-power FM stations would be small enough to fit between the frequencies of existing full-power stations, and their licenses would be granted to noncommercial organizations for educational purposes. "When hundreds of stations are owned by just one person or company," Kennard said in March 2000, "service to local communities and coverage of local issues lose out."

On the west side of South Bend, losing out meant a Hispanic community with no Spanish-language radio station. When WSBL-LP began its Spanish-language broadcast in September 2002, the community not only heard traditional and contemporary Hispanic music but also received English-language vocabulary lessons during the breaks. The station raises money for a local scholarship fund and helps collect corn flour for the local food bank. WSBL-LP regularly runs public service announcements for early-childhood vaccinations, prostate cancer testing, and HIV screenings, and can measure the results. "The statistics at local clinics jumped from last year to this," says Eliud Villanueva, director of WSBL-LP. "We have really made a difference, and that surprised us more than anyone else."

For Villanueva, an electrical inspector with no previous radio experience, the road to WSBL-LP began with a 700-mile drive to Maryland. That's where the Prometheus Radio Project was holding a "radio barn-raising" seminar at the site of another low-power FM station, WRYR-LP in Sherwood, Maryland. Prometheus, a nonprofit organization devoted to the growth of noncommercial community radio, offers legal and technical support to communities that want to build a low-power station — something that can realistically be done for about $10,000. The barn-raising offers three days of classes (including "Intro to Radio Engineering," "Running an All-Volunteer News Operation," "How the FCC Works") and concludes with the raising of a transmission tower and the station's first broadcast. "Once these stations were just a glint in the eye of the village wacko," says Pete Tridish, technical director for Prometheus. "People would say, 'You can't build a radio channel, only Clear Channel can build a radio channel.'"

Clear Channel, based in San Antonio, Texas, now owns more than 1,200 radio stations in 230 cities and has become Exhibit A for opponents of media consolidation. Many of its broadcasts originate in locations other than the cities where they are heard, saving Clear Channel considerable money. Low-power FM is technically and philosophically the opposite, originating locally and focusing tightly on local needs and concerns. "The purpose of low-power FM isn't profit," says Tridish. "The purpose is to rethink how we use media to bring communities together."

Mike Shay was a member of a Maryland environmental group battling to prevent a Chesapeake Bay wetland area from being developed into a supermarket when his organization applied to the FCC for a construction permit to build WRYR-LP. "We thought of it as a way to fight billionaire developers and corporations on a playing field that was not level," says Shay. WRYR-LP identifies itself as the first radio station owned and operated by an environmental group. Amid a mix of gospel, jazz, and alternative music, the station runs programs dedicated to local and national environmental issues. WRYR-LP also offers coverage of county council meetings and local elections, with particular emphasis on land-use and zoning issues. The programs on the station feature local musicians and writers, and are hosted by local residents. "We thought if we could celebrate our community, we would make it stronger," says Shay.

As with most low-power FM stations, WRYR-LP is funded through the donations of local residents and businesses. Running the station is a challenge for a volunteer staff with other full-time jobs, but the difficulties haven't deterred them. Shay, who traveled to Richmond, Virginia, to deliver a statement at the FCC's public hearing on broadcast ownership rules there last February, says he is disgusted with media deregulation and the buildup of media conglomerates: "Everything is going in such a wrong direction. Low-power FM is the one bright spot."

The birth of the low-power FM movement is generally attributed to DeWayne Readus, later renamed MBanna Kantako, who in 1987 began a 1-watt broadcast out of his apartment in Springfield, Illinois. "Kantako was the Johnny Appleseed of micro-radio," says Peter Franck, a San Francisco lawyer who advised Kantako on behalf of the National Lawyers Guild when the FCC fined Kantako for broadcasting without a license. Kantako was broadcasting to the African-American community in the John Hay Homes housing project where he lived, and his shows discussed the issues concerning that community, particularly issues related to police brutality in Springfield at the time. "People with alternative concerns of all kinds want to speak to their community," says Franck. "They want media that is not mediated by the government or by corporate advertisers."

But with limited spectrum space, radio has always necessitated some sort of regulation. And it is the apportionment of that spectrum space that is at issue in the low-power FM movement. When the FCC opened its first window for low-power construction permits in May 2000, 720 applications were filed. At the same time, the National Association of Broadcasters, joined by National Public Radio, raised concerns with Congress about the potential interference low-power FM channels might cause to existing full-power channels, and asked that the prescribed minimum dial distance between the two be increased. More distance meant fewer low-power channels. Though studies done by FCC engineers showed that the low-power signals were too small to cause interference at the designated distance, Congress complied with the NAB and NPR request for further study in December 2000. This effectively knocked out of contention more than half the original applications and all but excluded low-power stations from congested urban markets.

Low-power advocates were appalled. "It has never been appropriate policy in this country for Congress to make engineering decisions," says Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of Media Access Project, a public-interest telecommunications law firm based in Washington, D.C. "They were persuaded by incumbent broadcasters."

The results of the independent study requested by Congress were released in July and concluded what low-power FM advocates and FCC engineers had always maintained: that the majority of interference issues voiced by the NAB and NPR were not legitimate. A public comment period was open until September 12, and now the FCC will prepare its recommendation to Congress. "Right now is a very important time for media policy," says Leanza. "Low-power FM is one step we can take on a national level that says we support diversity and localism in media."

While the study is potentially good news for low-power FM, conceivably adding hundreds of new channels to the existing 220, the movement is still mired in bureaucracy with many applications filed more than a year ago still awaiting approval. Chairman Michael K. Powell announced in a press conference on Aug. 20 that the FCC would expedite the approval process but the agency is not currently accepting new applications for licenses and has not said when it will start again.

Which makes a station like Radio Bird Street grateful it has its license. "I would have been a pirate station if it weren't for low-power FM," says Erv Knorzer, general manager of KRBS-LP in Oroville, California. When KRBS-LP moved into an abandoned laundromat, its goal was to bring community radio to Oroville. In the process it brought some life back to a downtown area that had been deserted years ago for outlying strip malls. The station runs public service announcements for the local library, community theater, and senior center. It broadcasts the independent news program Democracy Now!, offering an alternative to the nearby commercial stations, five of which are owned by Clear Channel.

Knorzer's daughter, Marianne, serves as the station manager and arranges a programming schedule that includes Hmong-language news broadcasts for the Oroville Laotian community and a labor issues show that keeps local hospital workers up to date with news of the local Steelworkers Union. The station's youngest deejay is ten, the oldest seventy-two. The board of directors includes members of the local Mexican-American, Native-American, African-American, and Hmong communities. The studio on Bird Street is often crowded with people from the sixty-five-member staff of volunteers who make the station run. "This station gives hope to a lot of people," says Marianne.

Laurie Kelliher is an assistant editor at CJR.

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