Originally published in Current,
May 22, 2000
With its eclectic programming, youth training initiatives, and deep roots in its local minority community, Chicago's eight-watt WRTE may already be the kind of LPFM station that the FCC intended to create. But it could also serve as a warning for hopeful low-power broadcasters who might outgrow small signals and equally small budgets.
Licensed to the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, which bought it from the city's Boys and Girls Clubs in 1996 for $12,000, WRTE ("Radio Arte") bills itself as the only urban, Spanish-English bilingual, youth-operated radio station in the country. And it's unique in another way it's part of a dying breed of low-watt stations, a holdover from when the FCC still licensed 10-watt-and-under Class D stations. When the FCC stopped licensing Class D stations in 1978, it encouraged them to upgrade to 100 watts, but WRTE stuck with its weaker signal.
A unique two-part mission saves the station from being a museum piece. It serves Latino residents of Chicago's Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods with an eclectic, all-local mix of music and public service, and trains young people ages 16 to 21 to host and produce the shows. Programs include Radio Vida, about health and social issues; Sueño Intantil, Chicago's only Spanish children's radio show; and Armonia, a collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that introduces classical music to newcomers.
None of Chicago's Spanish-language commercial stations offer equivalent programming or devotion to training young people. "[WRTE is] located in a community in Chicago that is somewhat removed from what perhaps everybody in this nation knows as 'Chi-kaa-go,'" says orchestra Community Relations Coordinator Luciano Pedota, adopting a Midwestern accent. "They set a very good example of community service."
But that level of community service has a price tag. WRTE boasts a $320,000 annual budget, and Rodriguez says it's hard to scrape that kind of money together when your broadcasting radius is a mere three miles--five miles on a rainy day. "We can't even get Arbitron ratings," she says. "That's a big problem. ... Realistically, if we remain at eight watts, I can see this project slowly dying out."
Rodriguez has been trying to upgrade to 100 watts to attract more underwriting and reach other racial enclaves in the city. She expects the upgrade to cost nearly $100,000. To offset the price and its regular operating costs, WRTE receives funding from a host of foundations, such as the National Endowment for the Arts, the MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the federal government. And CPB recently threw $60,000 into the till, though Rodriguez says WRTE got a station grant only because it plans to upgrade its signal.
Securing all that funding has been a frustrating uphill fight for Rodriguez, who says foundations, including CPB, place a high premium on impacta vision that doesn't always match hers. "The issue of impact always comes up," she says. "Yet they don't really define what impact is. Do you mean local impact? National impact? ... I think that we have impact here locally, and as a small station that's more important to me. I just think they need to redefine what they mean by impact."
This attitude doesn't bode well for ambitious LPFM stations, she says. "A lot of foundations are saying, 'This is great.' Will they live up to that and fund small stations that are having a local impact? That's another question."
Not all LPFM stations will have the high ambitions and costly training initiatives that have put WRTE on the map, of course. Some LPFM advocates are discouraging would-be broadcasters from tying their hopes to national funding. "You don't need much money to run these things," says Amanda Huron of the Prometheus Radio Project, a microradio advocacy group.
"Think of low-power radio as part of what local community organizations and volunteer organizations do," says Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project. "I don't think most of those organizations are funded significantly through national foundations. Some of them may get funding from locals. Most are familiar with bake sales and funding drives and benefit dinners."
The advent of LPFM could spark new interest from foundations, however, which would be a boon to Rodriguez and small stations like hers. That's one reason she welcomes LPFM. "If there's more of us, there's more power there," she says.
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