Last fall, the Federal Communications Commission presented a rare opportunity to revitalize local radio in communities across the country. For one week in October, nonprofit groups could apply to the Commission for full-power FM radio stations. “This is the first time in more than seven years that applications would be accepted, and we saw this as an amazing opportunity for those communities that have fallen off the radio dial over the years,” says Jean Cook, Deputy Director of Future of Music Coalition, a national nonprofit that works with musicians and music advocates.
FMC identified the more than 200 organizations that could benefit from having a full-power radio station. Along with Radio for People coalition, FMC worked to ease a process that would otherwise be daunting, connecting applicants with lawyers and engineers and guiding them through each step of the process. “In particular, we zeroed in on groups that would bring new and diverse music programming to the air,” says Cook.
Commercial FM stations deliver narrow playlists of music in a limited range of genres. Meanwhile, public stations are cutting back on music in favor of more news and talk programming. Genres such as classical music are diminishing on radio, independent artists get little airplay and many other kinds of music are underrepresented. More independently owned and operated noncommercial stations on the air could take big steps to reverse this trend and restore musical variety to the airwaves.
Milwaukee is just one city where classical music is fading from the airwaves. It lost a commercial classical station several years ago, and no public station in the area offers the format. So with help from FMC, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra jumped at the chance to start an FM station.
“The possibilities that are represented by this license are just too good to pass up,” says Martin Sher, who as an Orchestra Management Fellow with the American Symphony Orchestra League coordinated the MSO’s efforts to prepare the FCC application. Operating a station would allow the MSO to provide classical music to its community, promote its own performances to a broad swath of the city’s residents and create a new venue for its archive of recorded performances.
Sher found unexpected enthusiasm among community members for a new classical station as he navigated the many twists and turns of readying the FCC application. The president of Norlight Telecommunications, which owns the broadcast tower that the MSO hopes will host its transmitter,” expressed real concern over the lack of classical programming” on the airwaves, Sher says. And staffers at the library in Saukville, Wisconsin, which is now hosting MSO paperwork required by the FCC, also shared encouragement, Sher says.
“We found cheerleaders throughout this process,” he says, “and I found that personally very gratifying.”
For some of the organizations who applied, starting a new FM radio station fit right in with their current activities. Berks Community Television in Reading, Pennsylvania, which already provides important local programming on a cable-delivered public access channel, was one of our most eager applicants.
A new FM station would allow BCTV to bring valuable community-focused programming to a new medium and expand its audience. It would also allow the nonprofit to include more music in its programming, a prospect that local musicians find particularly exciting, says Anne Sheehan, BCTV’s executive director.
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime for us to do something that’s relevant and that fits our mission — and may give us a whole new audience,” Sheehan says. She confirms that applying was much easier that we initially anticipated. “It wasn’t so bad, because I had people like FMC to turn to who could answer my questions and connect us with resources,” she says. “I couldn’t have done that by myself.”
Like many activists and would-be broadcasters we talked with, Sheehan laments radio’s current lack of diversity and localism. BCTV’s entry into FM broadcasting could help to change that.
“There’s a need for local noncommercial radio,” she says, “because everything is networks. Even NPR. You can go anywhere in the country and listen to NPR, which I love, but there’s no localness to it, no sense of community — unless they’re doing fundraising.”
The chance to provide a hub for community proved a strong draw for many applying organizations. Another is free103point9, an innovative nonprofit based in Acra and Brooklyn, New York, that is devoted to cultivating “transmission arts” — arts that use radio and other transmission technologies as their media.
A full-power FM station would provide a palette for the unique artworks that are free103’;s specialty. From its inception, free103 “has always been, first and foremost, interested in what people can do with the airwaves,” says Galen Joseph-Hunter, executive director. Because free103’s mission statement claims the airwaves as a medium for artistic expression, “the ability to have a full-power educational station is actually very well aligned with that goal,” she says.
Yet Joseph-Hunter envisions free103’s FM station as more than just an aural art gallery. The station would also cover local news, politics and other issues and invite community members to shape programming. Residents of Acra can hear WAMC, a noncommercial NPR station originating from Albany, about 30 miles away. “But I’ve actually never heard anything about my town on WAMC,” Joseph-Hunter says.
free103 is now researching its community’s needs and considering partnerships with high school, community centers and other educational institutions. “Right now, the local arts community knows about us, and we’re collaborating with that group quite well,” Joseph-Hunter says. “I think this would be a way for us to engage people who aren’t already integrated into the arts.”
The would-be broadcaster has already found support among its community of artists and nearby residents, which proved crucial to completing its FCC application. Individual donors stepped forward to help free103 pay for the necessary legal and technical assistance, and Public Radio Capital, a member of Radio for People, provided a key matching grant. Such collaboration demonstrates both an appetite for local, community-focused radio and the strength of the nationwide support network for launching such stations.
Potential nonprofit broadcasters often err in expecting “that you really need all this expertise to apply,” says Joseph-Hunter, “when instead what you need is money to hire the people with the expertise.”
These three applicants Â— as well as hundreds of others from all over the country Â— must now wait several years as their applications trickle through FCC pipelines. Because their applications conflict with others, there’s no guarantee that they will get their permits. But as they wait, the promise of providing local service and previously unheard programming to their communities is keeping their hopes high.
Meanwhile, these applicants and others across the country have raised their voices in support of low-power FM radio. A separate class of low-wattage stations licensed by the FCC, LPFMs are another kind of community-based media that can bring diverse local programming to the airwaves.
The FCC has already licensed hundreds of LPFMs around the country. Yet limits imposed by Congress and supported by large corporate broadcasters have prevented low-power broadcasters from reaching some of the country’s biggest cities. Legislation now pending in Congress would lift these barriers, potentially expanding LPFM to reach many new listeners.
Want to support low-power community broadcasting? Learn more from our friends at the Prometheus Radio Project. Then call or write your representatives in Congress, and tell them you want to hear more radio that reflects your community!
About the author: Mike Janssen served as Project Manager on FMC’s Full Power Initiative, recruiting arts and cultural groups to apply for noncommercial stations and assisting applicants throughout the process. He is a freelance writer, editor and leader of media workshops in the Washington, D.C., area. Visit his website at mikejanssen.net.