Communities channel low-power radio future
Community groups are jazzed over a rare chance to gain access to the airways as the federal government, for perhaps the last time, opens up the FM dial to thousands of new low-power radio stations across the country — including eight or so in the Seattle market.
Seattle Times staff reporter
One by one, around the room, they kicked about ideas for the kind of programming they’d want from a community radio station in one of Seattle’s most diverse neighborhoods.
Eleven-year-old Taylor-Corrine Benton, the only child in a room of musicians and music producers, activists and artists, said she’d favor programs “from a kid’s point of view” because there are not enough of those around.
Others talked excitedly about showcasing homegrown talent through on-air interviews. And Liz Davis, who founded the group Walkable Central Area after losing half of her 400 pounds 10 years ago, sees a neighborhood radio station as an ideal way to share her story with others.
And so it went.
Similar meetings have been taking place in neighborhoods across the country in recent weeks as the federal government prepares for the first time in 15 years to open the FM dial to thousands of low-power, noncommercial community stations.
About 15 area nonprofit organizations are vying for the eight or more licenses in the Seattle market, giving them capacity to broadcast at 100 watts — the power of a light bulb — to listeners in a 3- to 10-mile radius.
The licenses are for educational broadcasting, but that’s broadly defined and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) doesn’t stipulate content.
The agency will begin accepting license applications as soon as the government reopens.
This rare opportunity for LPFM, as it’s being called, has energized grass-roots groups looking for new ways to get neighborhood-level information directly to increasingly diverse constituencies — sometimes in multiple languages.
It will likely be the largest single expansion of community radio in history — and quite possibly the last — and potentially could bring more diversity to radio ownership nationwide.
It comes nearly two decades after industry consolidations changed the radio landscape, leaving some communities feeling unserved, and at a time when consumer options for obtaining news, music and other information continue to expand.
“This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and groups are hustling like mad,” said Ian Smith, program director with the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based group working with hundreds of applicants nationwide.
“We believe this can jump-start the FM dial.”
The community meeting in the Rainier Valley, hosted by SouthEast Effective Development (SEED) and its partners, drew neighborhood residents jazzed by this rare shot at gaining access to the local airways.
They talked about the need to feature neighborhood talent — before that talent becomes too big for the neighborhood. There were ideas about promoting local fundraising events, announcements about job and business openings, about community health programs, senior services and emergency preparedness.
“The Southeast is a unique community — rich in terms of culture and talent,” said Jerri Plumridge, director of SeedArts, an arm of SEED, which provides a range of services throughout the Rainier Valley/Rainier Beach area and would own the station, Rainier Valley Radio.
The area has been neglected, she said. “This is a way of getting our stories out, telling about our community and getting diverse cultures involved in marketing this community.”
Applying for licenses
This opening comes two years after President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, providing a space on the dial to a range of local organizations — from schools, unions and churches to social-justice organizations and advocacy groups.
The groups applying for licenses in this market cover Seattle neighborhoods from Wallingford to the Rainier Valley and cities from Vashon to Bothell.
Seattle University, for example, wants to provide radio access to students from nearby Seattle schools, and two student groups at the University of Washington plan to apply.
The immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica wants to broadcast from an area of SeaTac known as Little Mogadishu — partnering with local schools and cities to deliver information to immigrants, initially in English, Spanish and Somali.
Broadcasting at 100 watts of power, the stations would be capable of delivering solid signals to radios within a 3-mile radius of their antennas in locations hampered by tall building and hills, and up to 10 miles without such barriers. By comparison, a station like KUOW broadcasts at 100,000 watts of power.
Don’t expect these stations to begin popping up in your neighborhood in the next month — or even the next year.
Once the FCC approves an application in about two years or less, it will issue a permit, giving the organization about 18 months to prepare for operation.
But not every group applying will be licensed to operate.
Sabrina Roach, who has the title of “doer” at Brown Paper Tickets, has been working with local applicants. Because of the limited number of licenses available, she is encouraging collaboration rather than competition.
“What happens in a few years when those frequencies are distributed?” she asked. “I’d rather live in a city where we’re working together to make good local media, rather than still fighting about it two years down the road.”
This all is the result of years of activism by media reformers, like Prometheus, worried that community voices were lost amid the frenzy of media consolidations of the 1990s, when conglomerates such as Clear Channel gobbled up hundreds of radio stations throughout the country.
Prometheus got its start as a pirate station in Philadelphia after those mergers, and along with other advocates it successfully pressured the FCC into creating a low-power FM service in 2000.
That gave rise to more than 800 LPFM stations, in mostly rural areas, including KPCN in Woodburn, Ore., which broadcasts round-the-clock information relevant to farm workers and immigrants.
The conglomerates balked, complaining to Congress that the stations might interfere with their broadcast signals. They persuaded lawmakers to pass the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, which made it nearly impossible for community stations to operate in urban areas.
For the next decade, activists worked to reverse that law, succeeding in 2011 when Congress passed a measure allowing what is likely to be the final window for launching community stations.
Prometheus’ Smith also sees this as a chance to bring more diversity to radio ownership.
“Less than 10 percent of stations nationwide are owned by people of color — and even fewer are owned by women,” he said. “This is an opportunity to put ownership in the hands of those historically left out.”
However, less than a handful of the applicant groups for this market have any significant minority involvement.
David Keyes, manager of the city of Seattle’s community technology program, who attended the Rainier Valley meeting, called it “an awesome step for broadcasting the diverse voices and interests in the Valley.”
Many city departments, he said, from the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs to the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, see a chance to use these stations to target information to residents at the neighborhood level.
A significant benefit for the city, he added, would be distributing information on emergency preparedness — potentially in many languages.
Tony Benton, president of Musica Entertainment, who worked for Clear Channel for 20 years, told the Rainier Valley gathering that the station is a vehicle for them to make their voices heard.
“More and more stations are finding out that they have to program differently because of the younger audiences and higher diversity rates,” he said.
“You have commercial radio, public radio. This is community radio.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.