In a shoebox of a room in a building off St. Mary's Street stuffed with soundboards, microphones, digital consoles and coils and coils of wire, Kelly Reid and Jacob Downey are making radio.
Reid and Downey are the duo behind Little Raleigh Radio, a proposed low power FM station with an intensely local focus. "Our goal is to create something that's eclectic and accessible at the same time," Reid says. "We're trying to build something that is community-driven and community-focused but also is sexy and that has desire and that people want to keep listening to."
LPFM stations are relatively rare. Only two exist in the Triangle: WCOM, 103.5 in Carrboro and WRLY, 93.5, which covers primarily a small section of northeastern Raleigh. If awarded the frequency that Reid and Downey have requested—106.5— Little Raleigh Radio will reach listeners within southeast Raleigh and inside the beltline.
However, LRR has competition. Four religious groups, including one from Texas, are also vying for 106.5, indicating that despite LPFM's weak signal—stations can broadcast at no more than 100 watts, which covers about 3.5 miles—these frequencies are coveted, even in the age of Internet and satellite radio.
"Terrestrial radio will always strike a romantic chord with me," Downey says. "It is a community good. My ability to listen doesn't restrict anyone else's opportunity to tune in. Radio traveling through the air for everyone, waiting for potential listeners to provide meaning to its sounds, is worth reaching for and fighting for."
The political battle started in 2000, when the FCC created the LPFM service, stipulating that these stations must be licensed to nonprofit organizations and cover a small geographic area.
But according to community radio advocacy group the Prometheus Radio Project, LPFM faced pushback from corporate broadcasters. Dennis Wharton, vice president of corporate communications at the National Association of Broadcasters, said the delay was because of concerns about interference issues, rather than fear of competition.
"Those issues have been resolved and we're fine with LPFM stations so long as there's no interference," Wharton said. "There will always be minor issues related to interference when talking about LPFM, but the FCC has done a reasonable job trying to minimize the impact."
In 2011, President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, freeing the FCC to license new low power FM stations. Last fall the FCC opened a monthlong filing period for new low-power stations; nearly 100 organizations applied for frequencies in North Carolina, including 17 in the Triangle (see box, page 18).
Bob Burtman, a DJ with WCOM, explained that to avoid frequency interference, LPFM applicants have to have an official broadcast range measured as a radius from their transmitting site. That site cannot overlap with the official broadcast radius of any other station. Little Raleigh Radio has partnered with a local company that will provide a location for its transmitter, which will not interfere with another station.
Reid and Downey determined that 106.5 would encounter the least amount of interference. The transmitter, Reid says, will be "in the core of downtown Raleigh, on top of a very awesome building."
With the national policy debate resolved, the battle for the frequency begins—and Little Raleigh Radio, for all its attributes, is not necessarily a shoe-in. Four organizations, including the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus and a Raleigh Spanish-language church called Centro Cristiano el Sermon del Monte, have applied for the same frequency, according to an FCC online database.
However, North Raleigh Community Radio appears to be from Texas, with few or no local ties. It is among several Catholic groups that have submitted several applications for different frequencies in and around Raleigh; the language used in the applications' descriptions is similar, and multiple applications were filed by the same attorney and the same consulting engineer.
The Corporation for Educational Advancement sponsors the Thomas International Center, whose mission, according to its website, is "cultural renewal in light of Western and Christian intellectual traditions" as represented in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. The description of the organization's mission on its FCC application filing is vague; some of the description is merely cut and pasted from the organization's website.
A center spokesman said he was not prepared to talk about the group's plans for the station until the FCC awards the licenses.
The FCC tries to weed out dubious applications, says Leo Ashcraft, CEO of Nexus Broadcast, which has helped set up LPFM stations across the country. There is an issue around "sneaky mass filers who have created fake organizations to apply during the window," Ashcraft told a Warren Communication News reporter in November.
If the FCC weeds out station hoarders and mass filers, as well as defective applications, it is likely that the Knights of Columbus and the Centro Cristiano el Sermon del Monte are the only real competition Little Raleigh Radio faces. The FCC has yet to release rules on how frequencies will be shared between competing applicants if two or more are awarded the same ones. Reid says she could envision Little Raleigh Radio working with Centro Cristiano el Sermon del Monte if the FCC rules that the frequency must be shared.
"In my opinion, they're the only other group that embodies the spirit of why this license is available," Reid says. "It's a body of people who think it would be a neat way to teach English as a Second Language classes and stuff like that."
Burtman says it may be easier for two religious organizations to combine forces and share a frequency since their missions are more closely aligned. "That might put Little Raleigh Radio at a competitive disadvantage," he says.
Reid says she is frustrated by competition from religious groups that maybroadcast content that is not locally produced and would likely be geared toward a select group of people instead of the collective community. "It's painfully ironic that here we have a piece of history that was meant for building up community organizations and one of the world s largest organizations, the Catholic Church, is fighting for it," Reid says. "It just doesn't make sense to me."
In its application to the FCC, the Columbus Club wrote that it plans to broadcast local and national Catholic education programs (from national broadcasting organizations like the Eternal World Catholic Radio Network and Ave Maria Radio) and to use the station to work with local Catholic organizations to teach natural law principles and the pro-life position.
A spokesman for the Knights of Columbus chapter in Raleigh said he had no further comment on the group's plans for the LPFM station but noted that 100 percent of donations the organization receives "goes back to the community."
However, the FCC doesn't award frequencies based on the quality of proposed programming. Instead, the commission uses a six-point system to evaluate organizations.
Tim Warner, an Asheville-based consulting engineer who has assisted various groups with their LPFM permit applications, says the FCC is bound by law to use this criteria (see box, this page.)
"The FCC's rules are their interpretation of what Congress told them to do," Warner said. "They will follow the rules whether they make sense or not. The fact that one application may propose the most innovative programming in the last 40 years is not really relevant. Someone could read from the phonebook on air, as long as they're doing it locally."
Mark Turner, a Raleigh-based administrator and amateur radio operator who chairs Little Raleigh Radio's board of directors, worries that the major advantage that groups like Knights of Columbus have is longevity. Little Raleigh Radio was formed in 2010.
"We are the youngest of five groups and have the longest shot of gaining this license," Turner says. "Some are 50 years or older. They have us beat on the longevity, which may be all it takes."
Though they say their application meets five of the six points the FCC awards to LPFM license applicants, the stakes are high for Reid and Downey.
"It's not like you put in a backup application," Reid said of the process. "There's only so much real estate available on the FM dial. You're only allowed to apply for one frequency, and it's a one or nothing kind of thing."
Little Raleigh Radio has until early February to file informal objections to the competitors' application filings with the FCC; any of those groups may file objections to Little Raleigh Radio's application as well. Little Raleigh Radio may also propose minor changes to its application to help its chances of winning the frequency.
Little Raleigh Radio may later formally petition the FCC to deny any group an LPFM permit. Reid and Downey say they will review the other groups' applications and reach out to their competitors "to understand how their vision of community radio compares to ours." Reid says they are working with Prometheus Radio to better understand the objection period.
"We want to know what we can do best to prepare so that we don't compromise any of the hard work our volunteers have put in over the last two years," Reid says.
As a student, Reid was the music director at N.C. State University's college radio station, WKNC. Unable to find a broadcasting job out of college, Reid partnered with fellow WKNC alum Downey and Little Raleigh Radio was born.
With the help of a fiscal sponsor, the Raleigh-based nonprofit Friends of World Music, Reid and Downey have cultivated Little Raleigh Radio into an organization with more than 100 volunteers, many with IT, engineering and administrative expertise.
Reid and Downey are testing a web stream that will launch prior to the 106.5 broadcast, if the group is awarded the frequency. Little Raleigh Radio will hold trainings in January for volunteers who have applied for programs to prepare them to go on the air. The web stream will run continuously with live shows in the spring until the station can start broadcasting.
Heidi Halstead, a program host at WCOM who started a community radio station in College Station, Texas, says starting such a project is difficult but ultimately rewarding.
"Getting money to get a station launched without having a station for people to listen to was a lot of hard work," Halstead says. "Having an all-volunteer venture is hard to coordinate. There is no paid staff, so everyone is out doing it for the love of radio. The human part of working with volunteers is always a challenge but also a joy because you meet all these amazing people and bring in amazing talent."
Along with a mix of music shows, Little Raleigh Radio intends to feature programming about local museums as well as a talk show about pets hosted by downtown veterinarian Heather Moeser. "There's a healthy appetite from our producers for music that has a do-it-yourself background," Downey says. "We're trying to raise Raleigh's creative capital."
LPFM has several advantages over streaming content on the Internet. Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, there are restrictions on what can be streamed in order to protect intellectual property. Full music albums, for example, cannot be streamed in their entirety. In any three-hour period, no more than three songs from one album can be played and no more than two can be played consecutively; there can be no way for a listener to play songs on demand via a website.
Additionally, having a web stream-only model increases Little Raleigh Radio's licensing costs, according to Downey. And in an emergency, a broadcast station can be of greater community service than a web stream. Add in the frustrations of the Internet in general—buffering, overloaded servers, limited access to computers and high-speed service, especially for low-income households—and that tabletop radio takes on greater significance.
Andrew George, a DJ on WCOM who goes by the name Furious George, was involved with LPFM—at pirate station Free Radio Asheville— before it was legal. "It was civil disobedience and direct action broadcast," George says of the time. "People got arrested in Asheville, mayoral candidates were getting people out of jail. It was an amazing time for free speech. That spirit is behind LPFM and broadcasting noncommercial, community-based programming. It's different from anything else you will hear on the radio."
And it's that spirit of community that Little Raleigh Radio wants to bring to the city, even just 3.5 miles of it. The founders' dream is to have a storefront DJ booth in a large studio space, where people can produce programming as well as broadcast. "What makes good radio for us is being able to make that connection," Downey says. "When people walk by and look in, they feel like, 'That's my radio station,' and when they look out, they're like, 'That's my city.'"
The FCC's point system
The FCC uses a point system to select among conflicting or "mutually exclusive" LPFM applications filed in the same time period. The maximum number of points an application can be awarded is six. The applicant is awarded one point each for:
• Established community presence of at least two years in the community it proposes to serve and has been physically headquartered, has had a campus or has had 75 percent of its governing board members residing within 10–20 miles of the location of the proposed transmitting antenna.
• Local program origination: Applicants must pledge to originate at least eight hours of local programming per day.
• Main studio: Applicants must pledge to maintain a publicly accessible main studio that can produce local programmning. The studio must be reachable by phone, is staffed 20-plus hours a week and is located within 10–20 miles of the proposed site for the transmitting antenna.
• Local program origination and main studio: Applicant must certify that it qualifies for a point under both the local program origination and the main studio criteria.
• Diversity of ownership: Applicant must certify that neither it nor any party to the application holds an attributable interest in any other broadcast station.
• Tribes or Tribal organizations serving Tribal lands: Applicant must be a Tribe proposing to locate its transmitting antenna site on its Tribal Lands, or a Tribal organization proposing to locate its transmitting antenna site on the Tribal Lands of the Tribe or Tribes that own or control more than 51 percent of the organization.
No competition for frequency in Durham
It may come as a surprise that in a town heavy on homegrown media, only one group in the Bull City— Durham Church of Christ at 5225 Wake Forest Highway— has applied to the FCC for an LPFM station.
The no-denominational church has asked for the 107.9 frequency to teach biblical passages, emphasizing how to apply "those principles to moral living, family relationships and how to achieve and maintain a proper relationship with God." Additionally, the group says it will offer programming that "looks at evidences for the existence of God, the inspiration of the Bible and of Jesus."
The relatively small church, which has been in Durham since 1997, will fund its station "exclusively by (the) congregation and individual members of the Church of Christ."
The church has no competitors for 107.9.
Rebecca Cerese is vice president of the board of directors for public access stations The Peoples Channel in Chapel Hill and Durham Community Media. She said the organization doesn't have the capacity to expand into radio at this time.
Cerese says TPC/DCM "wholeheartedly supports" the efforts of groups such as Little Raleigh Radio and the Durham Church of Christ. The Peoples Channel/Durham Community hosted an information session with the Prometheus Radio Project last summer after the FCC announced it would open another filing window for LPFM. The session was filmed and can still be seen on The Peoples Channel, Channel 8 in Chapel Hill and Orange County, Channel 4 in Carrboro and if you have service through AT&T's U-verse, Channel 99 in Chapel Hill.
This article appeared in print with the headline "A lower power ."