Current Online

Low power, high hopes
Nonprofits envision a future for LPFM

Originally published in Current, May 22, 2000

By Mike Janssen

Would-be broadcasters gearing up for the first low-power FM application deadline next week comprise a positively Whitmanesque gaggle of hopefuls, mostly unfazed by the war against LPFM waged by lawmakers and big broadcasters.

Among the contenders for licenses in a major expansion of noncommercial radio, a Latino youth group in Des Moines, Iowa, wants to use a 100-watt signal to spread the word about community events.

There are also senior citizens in an Arizona retirement community who seek a forum for their special interest clubs and board meetings. Black women fighting for environmental justice in their small Georgia hometown. And Haitians in New York who say low-power broadcasting can iron out racial conflicts.

The list goes on—minorities, religious congregations, high school students, the elderly, local governments, emergency services—all eager to target small audiences that big broadcasters can't always afford to accommodate.

It sounds remarkably like FCC Chairman Bill Kennard's original vision of the new noncommercial service. But enthusiasts face a hazy future, as NPR, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), and members of Congress try to weaken or kill LPFM, drafting legislation and raising concerns about interference with existing full-power FM stations.

The ongoing congressional back-and-forth hasn't seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of LPFM supporters, however. If anything, it's encouraged them to aggressively lobby their lawmakers and work even harder at setting up stations. Several groups have formed expressly to hold radio novices by the hand as they scavenge for equipment, scope out scarce frequencies and navigate FCC paperwork.

"There's plenty of room on the airwaves," says Andrea Vargas, director of the United Church of Christ's Microradio Implementation Project (MIP). "We just need to find little niches here and there and not be intimidated by each other."

On the road

If the queue of LPFM hopefuls mirrors Walt Whitman's populist dreams, Amanda Huron's recent travels could echo Jack Kerouac's. After FCC commissioners approved LPFM, the 27-year-old schoolteacher and her comrades in the Prometheus Radio Project hit the road. The microradio advocates hold workshops on LPFM basics in libraries, bookstores, colleges and people's homes, offering advice on everything from finding used studio equipment to locating start-up money. Funders as diverse as the Albert A. List Foundation and pop-punk band Chumbawamba are footing the bill for the outreach. LPFM's low set-up costs (estimates run from about $5,000 to $10,000) encourage Prometheus and other advocates to spread their message before the first filing window opens May 30.

On a recent trip south, Huron and her colleagues hit 17 cities in three weeks, including Gainesville, Ga., where they met with the Newtown Florist Club, a group comprised mostly of black women. Fifty years ago, the club was founded to decorate local gravesites with flowers. After noticing that an unusually high number of people in the neighborhood of Newtown were dying of cancer and lupus, the club started investigating the local industries that were polluting their air unchecked. Since then they've fought environmental and other types of racism, holding anti-Klan rallies and empowering black teenagers. With high numbers of Latinos joining the Gainesville community, the Newtown Florist Club wants its own LPFM station to air programming about race, politics, and activism that bridges racial boundaries.

In Des Moines, Iowa, Carlos Eduardo Macias is preparing to meet his state's Feb. 2001 filing deadline. Macias, 21, leads the Latino Leadership Project, a nonprofit that involves local Latino high school students in mentorship programs and community service. The Guadalajara, Mexico, native has seen his city's Latino population explode by 300 percent in a decade as immigrants take farming and meat packing jobs. With half of the Latino population under 25, Macias says his low-power station will disseminate youth-focused information on immigration, civil rights, and resources for the Spanish-speaking community.

Macias took inspiration from Chicago's WRTE, a low-power station serving a growing Latino community (story, page A15). "Our community doesn't have the same means of communication or the same access to means of communication as other communities," Macias says. But "the capital required to start a commercial station would be a lot higher," he adds. "We came up with the perfect thing [in LPFM]."

Jim Ostheimer's plans echo Macias', but his target audience is quite different: the elderly residents of the Sun City retirement community in Vistoso, Ariz. "We have a monthly magazine as our news organ," Ostheimer, 67, explains. "Its news is a little stale as compared with a daily radio broadcasting message system." With Sun City's two-mile diameter roughly equal to a 100-watt signal's coverage, "it'd be perfect," he says. Past experiments with a Sun City TV channel were too expensive, and many residents don't even have cable. "It's hard to imagine that anyone wouldn't have an AM-FM radio," Ostheimer says. The station would cover daily news and events, rebroadcast board meetings, air music and publicize events staged by Sun City's bevy of dance, arts, language and travel clubs.

The FCC will require all LPFMs to operate at least five hours a day, and applicants proposing to broadcast 12 hours a day or more will have an advantage in competing for frequencies.

To help fill these hours, some special interest groups are already looking into distributing programming to LPFMs on a national scale. Rabbi Yakov Menken, director of the Baltimore-based Jewish outreach organization Project Genesis, says his organization has already received over 100 inquiries from would-be LPFM operators. Project Genesis could distribute discussions, music, call-in shows, and classes about Judaism if a market arises.

"We're waiting to see if the frequencies are in enough communities to make the venture worthwhile," Menken says. "I don't feel comfortable at this point approaching the donors and backers necessary to get this thing started when we don't know yet whether this will actually come to fruition." If it does, Menken's target market would be a captive audience. Orthodox Jews, who don't drive on the Sabbath, often live near synagogues, which are likely to host LPFMs. Stations broadcasting to senior citizens might also carry programs from WMKV, a Cincinnati public radio station for elderly listeners.

Under the auspices of a group called the Mt. Pleasant Broadcasting Club (MPBC), Huron also wants to get in on LPFM. She envisions a station in her hometown of Washington, D.C., with music, call-ins, neighborhood meetings, poetry readings and other programs in the city's many languages, including Amharic, Spanish and Vietnamese. MPBC held a successful benefit concert last year, and Huron is surveying her neighbors to find out what people most want to hear. She's even getting help from a few employees of NPR, which opposes the FCC's low-power proposal.

"[LPFM] can really bring a community together," Huron says. "It's a unique project. To operate a radio station ... you need a lot of shows. You can have a lot of people involved, but in very defined ways. That's what really gets me jazzed up about it. It's just done out of love."

Crossed signals

Supporters of LPFM say FCC rules are likely to produce stations that match the agency's lofty visions: local, independent and diverse. "The FCC went a long way toward making sure that the service will be local," says Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project.

But the plan is far from perfect, they say. Leanza and others are unhappy that the FCC intends to loosen local ownership and cross-ownership regulations in two years. And without any rules requiring local programming on LPFMs, some supporters worry that large fundamentalist religious broadcasters might homogenize the service by shepherding local churches through the application process and loading the airwaves with satellite-distributed programming.

"If they get licenses, it would be a shame," Huron says. "But [LPFM] will be fantastic otherwise." Vargas, who hasn't seen proof of the phenomenon, calls the fear an "urban legend." Pensacola Christian College is setting up LFPMs, according to one employee, but no one could be reached for details.

Frequencies are also proving to be less plentiful than the FCC predicted. For example, FCC officials said Washington, D.C. could be home to three LPFMs. But Huron recently found no way to fit a 100-watt station into the city. MPBC may request a waiver from the FCC that would allow them to broadcast anyway, she said.

Most foreboding are the legal and legislative challenges to LPFM. The House of Representatives passed a bill that the FCC claims could reduce the number of LPFMs by 80 percent, and senators are considering two separate bills. One would ban the service entirely. The other, introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), proposes licensing LPFMs but charges the National Academy of Sciences with guarding for potential interference with other stations. The NAB opposes McCain's bill.

But with President Clinton in support of LPFM, supporters hope the legislative fight will dissolve. "I can only believe that the Senate, as the more measured body of Congress, will decline to intervene in a dispute that the FCC was designed to address," Leanza says.

Home To Current's home page

Earlier news Earlier news: FCC approves licensing of LPFM stations, January 2000.

Related story Related story: WRTE, an LPFM station already operating in Chicago.

Outside links Outside links: Prometheus Radio Project's pro-LPFM site and National Association of Broadcasters' anti-LPFM pages.

Web page posted May 22, 2000
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2000