Don't Touch That Dial! Low-Power Radio is About to Make FM Hot Again - Wired Magazine


Don’t Touch That Dial! Low-Power Radio Is About to Make FM Hot Again 



DJ Pat Seymour cues up a record while broadcasting from the Chicago Independent Radio Project. Later this year, the FCC will start distributing FM radio licenses to nonprofits, allowing them to broadcast with 100 watts or less.Photo: Greg Ruffing/Wired


Jabari Moketsi was a radio talk show host at WVGB until the struggling station was sold to a company that broadcasts classic rock. He had no interest in spinning songs by Boston and Bad Company, so he launched his own station, streaming online, to continue serving the African-American community.

He’s built up a national following in the four years since, with far more listeners in places like Houston and Seattle than the community he hoped to serve in Beaufort, South Carolina. That is why he, and thousands like him who broadcast online, are so excited by the opportunity to do something far more low-tech: broadcast over the air.

“I want to be on the dial because radio is free,” Moketsi said. “Having listeners in Houston or Seattle or New York, that’s good, but does that influence your community where you live? That’s what I’m about.”

Now he’ll have his chance. Later this year, the Federal Communications Commission will begin distributing licenses to registered nonprofit organizations that want to start low-power FM radio stations. The goal is to dot the country with 100-watt transmitters, primarily in urban areas, and restore some of the diversity lost to corporate consolidation of radio.

“It’s the largest expansion of community radio in this country’s history,” said Ian Smith, program director of Prometheus Radio, which has been lobbying the government for more than a decade to permit such stations. Broadcasting would, ideally, be done in addition to streaming, extending the reach – and effectiveness – of community organizations and activists, some of which also publish newspapers.

“Our vision is a nationwide network of multimedia centers that incorporate local radio,” he said. “For radio to maintain its relevancy, it has to be incorporated into a larger toolkit.”

This may well be the last distribution of FM radio licenses by the FCC, so competition will be intense. If there are multiple applicants for a single license that all meet the minimal requirements, the FCC will use a points system to help choose who gets a license. Points are awarded to organizations that pledge to air at least eight hours of local programming daily, offer a publicly accessible studio that is staffed 20 hours per week or are affiliated with a Native American tribe, among other things. In the event of a tie, the FCC will ask the two organizations to work out a plan for sharing time on the dial.

DJ Dave Morrissey cues up a record while broadcasting from the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP), in the city’s North Center neighborhood. Photo: Greg Ruffing/Wired

This has been a long time coming. Shortly after the FCC began distributing low-power licenses for community radio stations in 2000, Congress passed a law requiring that the licenses be more than three clicks – the jump from 96.1 to 96.3 is one click — away from an existing full-power station. Congress made this stipulation because existing stations worried their low-powered neighbors on the dial might cause interference. That largely excluded groups in urban areas, where the radio dial tends to be crowded, from getting licenses.

Prometheus fought to change that and prevailed in 2010 when Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act. It granted the FCC the authority to allow community broadcasters to be located three clicks away from other stations, and to issue waivers to stations two clicks away, provided they don’t cause interference. Big incumbent broadcasters, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters and even NPR, opposed the waivers. But in November, the FCC sided with Prometheus and others, announcing the process by which organizations could apply beginning in October.

“This is a big step to empower community voices, promote media diversity, and enhance local programing. Our order creates opportunities for thousands of new FM radio stations throughout the country,” FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement at the time of the order. “There is no way of knowing exactly who will apply, but we expect to see literally thousands of new applicants.”

Any nonprofit can apply. They’ll be limited to 100 watts or less, limiting their range to between three and 10 miles, depending upon the terrain. That doesn’t sound like much, but in an urban area like Chicago, such a station could reach as many as 1 million people. That’s why more than 3,000 people have told Prometheus Radio they want to start stations.

That might sound counter-intuitive when it takes little more than a laptop and a microphone to begin a streaming station. But community groups that built an audience online say they could significantly increase their targeted listenership broadcasting over the air within their community.

This is exactly what Moketsi wants to do. His Gullah Geechee Radio Network targets the Gullah, who are descendants of slaves. Some of them lived for years on islands off the coast of Georgia, where their culture thrives. After leaving WVGB four years ago, he launched the streaming station so locals might tune in.

That wasn’t the case. Most of his listeners are far beyond South Carolina and Georgia, which means he must focus on music and talk that appeals to so broad an audience. Should he receive a broadcast license, he’ll focus more tightly on local news and issues relevant to the Gullah.

“The reason I don’t do that now is many of my listeners live in other places so what do they care what’s going on at our city council,” he said.

Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP) founder and general manager Shawn Campbell (center, in jeans and sweater) shares a laugh with the station’s DJs during a staff meeting and DJ training session. Photo: Greg Ruffing/Wired

It isn’t just the activists eager to begin broadcasting. Shawn Campbell, founder and general manager of the Chicago Independent Radio Project, said fans of the listener-supported streaming station have long wondered when CHIRP would hit the airwaves.

“It’s the number one question we’re asked by listeners,” she said.

The station targets people interested in exploring new music, including local Chicago bands. Although streaming on the internet reaches people worldwide, Campbell says CHIRP’s audience will grow once it starts broadcasting. She says the station could reach 1 million listeners, many of them finding the station through serendipity.

“The broadcast dial is finite, as opposed to the internet, which is almost infinite,” she said. “People are more likely to stumble on you.” Besides, she said, “You can’t assume everyone who wants to listen to you online is able to.”

Getting started in low-powered radio is relatively cheap and easy. Nonprofits need an engineer to develop a broadcasting plan outlining, among other things, where they’ll install the antenna and how far the signal will reach. That’ll run anywhere from $300 to $2,000. The equipment needed to get up and running, including the transmitter and antenna, could cost as little as $10,000, said Smith of Prometheus Radio.

The technology is the easiest piece in building a community radio station, Smith said.

“The hardest step really, we’ve learned from our 10 years, is building community. To run a radio station isn’t just plug in an iPod and play music. It’s what do people want, who in the community and what perspectives aren’t being shared. That aspect is much more challenging,” Smith said.