Inaugural Next Generation Warning System grants prioritize expansion to underserved communities

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Mike Janssen, using DALL-E 3

For Chris Puorro of IRSC Public Media, federal funding for the Next Generation Warning System couldn’t have come at a better time.

In late 2022, the public radio service he leads in Ft. Pierce, Fla., secured FCC approval for a new noncommercial educational radio station near Lake Okeechobee, a rural community on the fringes of its IRSC’s coverage area. But financing equipment purchases and construction of a new station can be a struggle for small public media organizations like IRSC.

NGWS, a federal grant program to upgrade public alerting systems, supports technology and infrastructure that expands public media’s capacity to transmit emergency messages to the public. Congress began funding NGWS through the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2022. CPB now manages the competitive grant program under a contract with FEMA.


Indian River State College, licensee of IRSC Public Media, became one of the first NGWS grantees in October when CPB awarded up to $165,680 for the purchase and installation of an HD transmission line and tower antenna for the new station in Okeechobee. Mississippi Public Broadcasting, the first public media state network to receive NGWS funding, will upgrade its emergency alert system encoders with its grant of up to $221,000.

Both grantees received priority consideration in CPB’s inaugural request for NGWS grant proposals because they sought to expand or improve service to rural, tribal or underserved communities, according to Tracey Briggs, CPB spokesperson. CPB is processing “hundreds of applications” submitted to its request for NGWS proposals last fall and expects to announce more grants this year, she said.

Puorro, associate VP and GM for IRSC Public Media, called NGWS “the perfect opportunity” for the service expansion.

“Okeechobee County and the entire Lake Okeechobee area is extremely underserved because it’s split between four radio markets and three television markets, and it doesn’t make up a large chunk of any of them. So it often gets neglected by media in general,” Puorro said.

“This provided us the opportunity to really serve an area that’s underserved, and it goes to the heart of the mission of the Next Generation Warning System, to get those alerts out to areas that don’t have coverage currently,” he added.

Approximately $34 million of the $40 million funded for the NGWS in fiscal year 2022 will be awarded to stations. Congress appropriated an additional $56 million to the program in FY23.

Different regions, similar goals

IRSC Public Media, which operates public radio news stations WQCS, WQCP and WQJS along Florida’s Treasure Coast, identified Okeechobee as an underserved community and won the construction permit through a competitive process. The new station will broadcast on 90.5 FM under the call letters WQCO.

“This is a desert for public radio in the area,” Puorro said. “They have no reception that is considered city grade. They can hear stations from Ft. Pierce, they can hear stations from Ft. Myers, but they’re scratchy and they don’t really cover the area.”

When WQCO’s transmitter lights up later this year — Puorro expects that it will begin broadcasting WQCS’s all-news schedule no later than summer — it will be Okeechobee’s first public media station. The city has an estimated population of nearly 5,500 residents, according to 2022 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The rural community is 25% Hispanic, nearly 16% Black and 3% Asian. Whites make up 54% of the population.

A primary driver of WQCS’s expansion to the community is capacity-building for emergency communications. Okeechobee is vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding from Lake Okeechobee.

IRSC Public Media’s $165,680 grant is exactly the amount requested in its NGWS proposal last fall, Puorro said. He prioritized WQCO’s build-out over the equipment needs of other IRSC stations because the new signal will reach people who lack access to other sources of news and information. 

As for longer-term plans for WQCO, Puorro plans to engage the community in conversations about the programs and services Okeechobee residents want from their public radio station. He plans to raise funds to build a facility in or around Okeechobee, hire staff and gradually add original local programming.

‘The warning system we have is outdated’

MPB sought NGWS funding for an update of the digital emergency communication system that’s deployed across its networks of television and radio stations. “The warning system that we currently have is outdated,” said Executive Director Royal Aills.


MPB’s system isn’t compatible with the latest DASDEC software updates, so it’s time for all new equipment. It also lacks the ability to send geo-located emergency messages, Aills said.

“If a storm goes through the northern part of Mississippi and we put out an alert, it affects all of Mississippi,” he said. “And the folks on the coastline, they’re not going to be affected by the storm, but they’re going to hear about it. What we want to do is purchase encoders that would allow us to only broadcast to affected areas.”

If MPB hadn’t received its NGWS grant, Aills and his team would have had to make tough choices in updating encoders on MPB’s networks comprising eight television and eight radio stations, Aills said. “We have limited funds here.”

“Our infrastructure needs are very large,” he added. “We are trying to attack our infrastructure needs one project at a time with our friends at the legislature who are gracious to give us funding, but it’s not enough to cover the whole system that we have.”

“We would’ve had to take the money out of existing funds, which is not something we wanted to do,” Aills added. Now MPB will also be able to proceed with other infrastructure projects, such as tower upgrades or repairs to HVAC systems at its tower sites.

Still, replacing MPB’s older DASDEC emergency communication system was a top priority, due to an FCC deadline for broadcasters to meet new standards for the Emergency Alert System. Though the FCC deadline for compliance expired last month, MPB sought and received an extension to comply with the new rules by April 30. America’s Public Television Stations and CPB filed comments with the FCC in support of MPB’s request.

“This is a great first-round gift, and we’re excited about it,” Aills said. “It’s two things off my checklist that we needed to deal with.”

“There isn’t a station in the system that doesn’t have infrastructure needs,” he added. “We all have that. Some more than others.”

Aills also hopes that NGWS sticks around for the long-run. “I just hope our friends on Capitol Hill see the value in this,” he said. “The Next Gen Warning System will help save lives.”

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