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Seven adults and a dependent child The steering committee of Spokane's KYRS-LP poses for a group portrait on the station's first night of broadcasting. (Photo: Bob Zeller.)

At 5 years old, LPFM takes all comers

Originally published in Current, April 11, 2005
By Mike Janssen

Like all low-power FMs, WUVS in Muskegon, Mich., puts out only a 100-watt signal. But it has a professional sound, a paid staff and the can-do attitude of a much bigger broadcaster.

In fact, the little noncommercial outlet often steps up to cover local news you won’t hear on the city’s commercial stations, says Paul Billings, g.m. and p.d. When President Bush campaigned in Muskegon, only WUVS carried his speech, Billings says. When a water main broke, only WUVS warned listeners to boil their water — it was the only station in town with a live deejay at the controls.

“Time and time again, we have been there in the community,” Billings says.

The Muskegon station and hundreds more are the embodiment of the low-power FM movement. When the FCC gave birth to the service five years ago, commissioners and micro-radio advocates expressed hope that the tiny noncom stations would counter the effects of media consolidation with unheard voices and niche programming tailored to their communities.

A congressional decision to limit licensing of the stations came as a blow, but in smaller cities where a less crowded FM dial allowed LPFMs to start up, listeners are discovering music, news reports, opinions and esoterica in an array of styles and languages.

“The true diversity is something we couldn’t have anticipated,” says Hannah Sassaman, program director for the pro-LPFM Prometheus Radio Project.

LPFM broadcasters are still relatively wet behind the ears, with the first signing on in 2001. Some rely on automation software and minimal staff to keep costs almost nonexistent. Others adopt fundraising techniques from bigger pubradio siblings, selling underwriting and winning grants from foundations.

Revenue sources vary widely, “anywhere from bake sales to it being a line item in somebody’s budget,” says Kai Aiyetoro, formerly director of LPFM for the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

Some low-power stations could be eligible for CPB funding after broadcasting for a year and achieving a minimum amount of nonfederal financial support, says NFCB President Carol Pierson. Native stations backed by tribal governments are among the most likely candidates, Pierson says.

NFCB and Prometheus see opportunities for low-power stations to give each other tips about fundraising and stations are sharing programs through websites such as Live365, the Public Radio Exchange and the a-Infos Radio Project (radio4all.net).

Full-power community broadcasters are eager to encourage such collaboration. For those meeting in Baltimore this week at NFCB’s annual Community Radio Conference, LPFM’s radio newbies have offered refreshing inspiration. They’ve also been among the first community broadcasters in years to start stations because of the FCC’s freeze on new full-power noncoms.

KREV: a return for “good old radio”

There are 607 low-power FM stations on the air today, according to the website LPFMDatabase.com. Churches operated about half of the LPFMs broadcasting as of Sept. 1, 2004, NFCB says.

Some of the religious stations air syndicated Christian-themed programming such as the Salem Music Network. Others, particularly Methodist churches, focus more on local fare, says Kai Aiyetoro, who directed NFCB’s low-power work until the program’s grant expired.

One such station is KREV [website] in Estes Park, Colo., the first LPFM run by a United Methodist Church. Choral and inspirational music fills KREV’s early mornings but gives way later in the day to jazz, folk, classical and world music — even a weekly hour of Wurlitzer theater organ tunes, hosted by Station Manager Paul Saunders.

KREV staffers record concerts and interviews in Estes Park, and the station might soon add locally written and performed radio dramas to its regular broadcasts of the old Lux Radio Theater hour.

“I’ve heard it’s been said that we’re bringing good old radio back,” says Saunders, whose paunch and long white beard make him the spitting image of Santa Claus. “If they’re willing to put up with amateur radio, then we’re excited to do it.”

Saunders first learned of LPFM from a newspaper article and was driven by a desire to get arts on the radio for elderly listeners unable to go out at night. Church members put up most of the $20,000 needed to launch the station in August 2002. KREV continues to receive donations and sells underwriting. Its studio space is the sole contribution from the church.

WUVS: aiming for a polished sound

Community impact is a top priority for Muskegon’s WUVS. In January a station event to promote prostate cancer awareness brought in more than 100 men to get screenings. A month later, a job fair featuring 21 employers drew 800-plus attendees, Billings says. The station has adopted two miles of highway, and on weekends station staffers mow lawns and shovel snow for elderly Muskegonites.

In addition to carrying Bush’s speech, WUVS has featured high-profile interviewees such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, rapper LL Cool J and Sen. John Edwards.
When WUVS signed on in March 2002, no other station was playing urban music or catering to the city’s African-Americans. Billings retired from his 13 years as a corrections officer and invested his 401(k) savings, as well as volunteer and intern experience in broadcasting, into WUVS.

Ninety percent of the station’s $150,000 budget comes from underwriting, and it receives a $5,000 grant from Verizon. Billings retains a paid staff of 11 rather than use volunteers because “you can write them up; you can come down harder on them,” he says.

The WUVS sound is a far cry from the crunchy-granola feel of some community stations. Prominent on its playlist are Snoop Dogg, Usher and 50 Cent, all major-label artists, and at the WUVS website (1037thebeat.com) an announcer’s low rumble introduces the station that’s “shakin’ and bakin’ the jams all day long.”

“I want my station to sound just as good as a commercial station,” says Billings.

Teamwork in the Northwest

KYRS in Spokane, Wash., sticks closer to the traditional community radio model. Dozens of volunteers host programs featuring jazz, blues, hip-hop, indie rock, punk, heavy metal and Persian and Russian music. Two shows are in Spanish. Public affairs shows include interviews, environmental news and syndicated programs such as Democracy Now and Free Speech Radio News.

The goal is to “give a little slice of the airwaves back to the community,” says Station Manager Lupito Flores, the only paid staffer.

Operated by Spokane’s Citizens for Clean Air, the station has grown since its October 2003 debut thanks to a warm reception from funders, listeners and like-minded activist groups. Its primary transmitter 11 miles outside Spokane barely reached into the city, but Flores says most listeners now get KYRS through a translator erected in December by the Peace and Justice Action League, a local activist group.

For its first year on the air, KYRS got 120 listeners to donate $100 and join a “founding members” circle. The station also helps cover its $60,000 spending with grants from four foundations in Washington state and from Resist Inc., a progressive funder in Massachusetts.

KRYS is an early collaborator with full-power community stations, a practice that could become more widespread. Its volunteers have attended workshops led by staffers from KBCS in Bellevue, a Seattle suburb, and KBOO in Portland, Ore.

The stations aim to formalize their ties through a proposed network for community stations in the Northwest. KBCS, Prometheus and Reclaim the Media have applied for a grant from San Francisco’s Threshold Foundation to start the network, which would include a low-power FM mentoring program.

Working with low-power stations has been “amazingly inspiring and energizing,” says Kristin Walsh, p.d. at KBCS. Staffers from her station and others around the country have converged in various cities for LPFM “barnraisings” staged by Prometheus, where old hands offer workshops, advice and assistance with assembling studios.

“LPFM stations are the new generation of community radio,” Walsh says, “so we want to do what we can to really let it thrive.”

Web page posted April 23, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee

EARLIER ARTICLES

The FCC approved LPFM as a class of noncommercial service in 2000, giving it secondary status — the same as for translators that repeat full-power stations.

A 2003 study for the FCC indicates that rules limiting the number of LPFM stations could be relaxed somewhat.

Partisans ask whether low-power FM must come with low rank in the pecking order for interference protection.

LINKS

WUVS, Muskegon, Mich.

KREV, Estes Park, Colo.

KYRS, Spokane, Wash.

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