A black umbrella sat on the old beaten up sofa in the corner of the Internationalist Bookstore. A long antenna was connected to its top; a set of cables connected the antennae to a black metal lunchbox decorated with a white skull and crossbones. Inside, a small radio transmitter, battery, and mini-mixing board were turning the small meeting into a live broadcast.
Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project came to Chapel Hill on Aug. 16 to demonstrate what a low-power radio station sounds like, and what it takes to get (a legal) one up and running. At half a watt, the demo signal didn't reach outside the bookstore. But under regulations approved by the Federal Communications Commission in January 2001, would-be broadcasters can apply for a license to broadcast at 100 watts, which reaches at least a 3.5-mile radius (or more, depending on geography). By comparison, WXYC, the student-run radio station at UNC-Chapel Hill, broadcasts at 400 watts; most commercial stations broadcast at 100,000.
Low-power FM (LPFM) licensing is the culmination of 20 years of activism across the country by radio pirates, church groups, and people from across the ideological and cultural spectrum who lobbied the FCC to make it possible for community groups to operate small, non-commercial radio stations. The movement has sought to stem the tide of media consolidation, hoping to broaden ownership of the airwaves to the public, instead of limiting it to a corporate monopoly that continues to eat itself. There are now about 50 low-power stations operating in the United States, and approximately 350 total construction permits have so far been issued. If all goes well this fall, two local groups might finally be able to plug in.
Public Gallery of Carrboro, a nonprofit that has been bringing public sculpture to the streets, applied for an LPFM license and is waiting for the green light to start construction. If approved, it would broadcast at 103.5 FM from the top of Weaver Street Market's new store in Southern Village. (Anticipating the station's existence when they planned the new store, Weaver Street Market made sure to write the 100-foot antenna into their lease.) While programming is still in the very early planning stages, Ruffin Slater, president of Public Gallery of Carrboro and general manager at Weaver Street, said the station would broadcast and promote local arts events and concerts, and he hopes it will provide some programming in Spanish. "It's going to be a function of people getting involved, what they want to see," Slater said. "The main idea is to have the programming reflect the needs of the community."
The connection between Prometheus and the Public Gallery station runs deep. UNC graduate student Amanda Huron, who worked with Slater on the license application, was an original member of Prometheus during the days before micro-radio went legit and is now on its board of directors. "We're really lucky in this area to have a couple of really good non-commercial radio stations and a good public radio station," Huron said. "And I think what this station is going to do is different. WXYC does a good job of bringing a lot of music to this area that couldn't get played on commercial radio. What would be great to see in this new station is programming that includes music and art but is a little more explicitly oriented toward public affairs in this specific community. WUNC does almost all public affairs, but most of it is produced in Washington, D.C., or in other part of county. So to have a station that focused on a lot of local issues would I think be really exciting."
It appears they have a good shot at the license. They're not competing with anyone else for that spot on the dial, which is a common concern. Youth Voice of Raleigh is currently facing that obstacle in their application for 107.5 FM. They're competing with a group called the Cardwell Foundation; various web and directory searches failed to turn up information about that group. "Public Gallery's is one of the few applications I've seen in such a populous area that doesn't have competition for the same frequency," said Petri Dish of Prometheus Radio Project, who kept his pseudonym as a holdover from his days as a pirate radio activist. Church groups have applied in hordes for the licenses and often crowd the field. Dish created Prometheus to help groups like Public Gallery and Youth Voice take advantage of LPFM. The Web site www.prometheusradio.org provides information on everything from technical how-to's to navigating legal hurdles to organizational models for how to run and promote the station.
Dish is taking his transmitter on a tour of the South this month to drum up help for a "barnraising" event to launch an LPFM station in Opelousas, La. Over the course of the Nov. 15-17 weekend, volunteers will help build a station from the ground up for a civil rights group called the Southern Development Foundation, which plans to broadcast zydeco music and cultural programming. Despite the fact that zydeco was born there, the group says commercial stations ignore it and prefer to pump "young country" and "classic rock" programming to all their affiliates. It's case in point for local-minded LPFM. Dish says the two barnraisings they've had so far have been successful, and the experience offers volunteers a way to learn step-by-step how to build their own station.
Prometheus has another goal in spreading the word about LPFM. They're launching a campaign against Clear Channel Communications, one of the biggest media corporations in the United States and a powerful force in radio. Clear Channel owns 1,200 stations nationwide, including five in the Triangle (WDCG, WRDU, WRSN, WTRG and WDUR), as well as 41 entertainment amphitheaters (including Walnut Creek) and the powerful SFX entertainment and sports promotion company. They're known to fire most of the staff from the stations they acquire and broadcast the same playlist and DJ announcements to affiliates all over the country. This practice of canned DJ banter is called "voice tracking" and is becoming common industry-wide. "Clear Channel is a perfect example of what happens when corporate owners are allowed to own as many media outlets as they want," Dish said. The company is currently facing an anti-trust lawsuit and is taking heat from the music industry over a scandalous pay-for-play system.
Big radio fought LPFM every step of the way. "We had won on the technical merits of our arguments at the FCC, where all the engineers are," Dish told the bookstore audience as he recounted the history of micro-radio. But the National Association of Broadcasters nearly succeeded in lobbying Congress to overturn the LPFM licensing system. Thanks to a surprising rally led, in fact, by Sen. John McCain, Congress passed legislation that just barely saved it. In the end, many of the gains in the FCC's original plan were scrapped or pared down, but the essence of LPFM remained intact.
Slater envisions a democratic model for the Public Gallery station, with a mix of music and public affairs programs and locally produced news. "A lot of people in Carrboro believe that this community has a lot of good ideas, creativity, initiative, and that we can do a better job of programming a radio station than a company that has 10, 20, 1,000 stations and is programming for the lowest common denominator. They don't have the ability to customize their offerings."
Huron sees benefits beyond just what goes on the air. "Starting a community radio station is also a really good community project," she said. "Part of it is what goes over the air and what people that are listening hear. But the other part is the relationships that build between people working on the station and the connections between people that are coming from different places."
Applications filed during the June window are expected to be approved or denied sometime in the next three months or so, with two to three answers trickling in each week. So, sometime this fall, Public Gallery could be breaking ground. If they get a construction permit from the FCC, they'll be needing lots of help: volunteer DJs, engineers, organizers and other staff. Contact Public Gallery at
firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to get involved.