Community radio isn’t just for pirates anymore

Ask Jim Bear why he decided to only broadcast G-Town Radio’s community-based content online and you’ll get a very pragmatic answer: There wasn’t really an alternative.

“It’s been impossible to have [a community radio station] in Philadelphia,” says Bear, who launched the station in 2006. “There’s just no space on the [FM] dial.”

That is, until recently.

Regulatory change

In early January, President Obama quietly signed into law the Local Radio Community Act, which expands the available airspace and with it the number of low-power FM (LPFM) licenses the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can award across the country.

LPFM broadcasts were already authorized in legislation passed in 2000. Under that measure, they were defined – and continue to be – as non-commercial, independent stations powered by less than 100-watts or about a 3.5 mile coverage area.

But they also had to be at least three “clicks” away from full-power stations to avoid overlapping and interference.  Now, following new regulatory protections, the gap is down to two.

While seemingly insignificant, that one-click reduction means everything to advocates of the legislation as it opens up for the first time the possibility of having more LPFM stations in urban areas with jam-packed spectrums.

“In 2000 when LPFM licenses were awarded, they were mostly awarded in rural areas and a few suburban areas,” says Vanessa Graber with the West Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, which spearheaded a decade-long grassroots campaign to reform LPFM regulations.

A lot of the new licenses, she adds, also ended up in the hands of commercial stations who didn’t broadcast any local programming in the communities where they held the license.

“Instead, satellite programming was typed in from another location,” says Graber.

It’s unclear  at this point what the rules will be for applying for a license or even how many new spots will ultimately be available. Graber says she and others would like to see between three and seven new frequencies be made available.

In the meantime, it is clear that there’s a lot of interest in the law. More than 600 requests for information from groups from across the country have already flooded Prometheus’ offices at 48th and Baltimore Avenue, says Graber.

Internet vs. LPFM

Bear, who runs G-Town Radio out of a second-floor apartment near Greene Street and Chelten Avenue in Germantown, says he’s been charting the legislation’s progress and may be one of many who will likely compete for an LPFM license down the road.

If awarded one, Bear says he would use the opportunity to expand his operation.

“We’re still firm believers in the power of the internet. But being able to reach most of Philadelphia, that is exciting too,” says Bear, who acknowledges that the online radio movement is still in its infancy.

And content-wise, G-Town’s focus would stay largely the same, says Bear.

“In a lot of ways we [already] exist in the model of a community radio station,” he says. “The only thing that might change is we might be bigger.”

Still Bear says the decision will be tough. There are a lot of advantages to being an internet-only operation. You don’t need a lot of space or a lot of money. And most things can be programmed from a computer, he says. Internet radio is also outside of the FCC’s purview, which gives Bear and his crew of volunteer producers, free range.

Whether he ultimately follows through on applying, Bear is pleased the legislation passed. More than anything, he says, the measure will help heighten the diversity of available radio content, which he says has suffered as media ownership has become hyper-consolidated over the years.

“If you don’t have a variety of voices creating this stuff you’re not going to have as wide a viewpoint of the world as you would otherwise,” says Bear.

Radio from the community

Community radio, says Bear, also opens up the opportunity for people to learn about issues and events that even the city’s local TV and radio affiliates don’t cover because they only concern less than a handful of zip codes.

“The local TV affiliates and Channel 12, their responsibility is to the city at large, not to a neighborhood,” says Bear. “And there are a lot of important smaller issues that can’t be on their radar because it doesn’t serve the rest of their listening audience.”

Renee McBride-Williams, station manager for the city’s one and only licensed LPFM station WPEB (short for West Philadelphia Educational Broadcasters), is similarly excited about that law’s potential impact.

McBride-Williams says stations like WPEB on 52nd Street in West Philadelphia are unique because their content is largely shaped by the issues – good and bad –  that directly affect nearby residents.

Traditional, full-power radio stations, she says, simply don’t work that way.

“They’re more or less creating what the community needs versus the community creating what they need,” says McBride-Williams.

That scenario, says McBride-Williams, helps residents forge a deeper connection to the station and develop a sense of ownership that can be harnessed to make positive change in the community.

“Community radio focuses on the talents and concerns of the community and empowers them in a sense that gives them greater strength for development where they live,” said McBride-Williams.

She says she’d like to see every section of the city have a community radio station so that the entire city could hear the concerns of one another and potentially unite around common issues.

Graber with the Prometheus Radio Project says the FCC can begin their rule-making discussions at any time, which will include input from organizations like Prometheus as well as from long-time industry groups like the National Association of Broadcasters.

“We’ll work very closely with [the FCC] and the public on what we believe the LPFM program should be, what the criteria are for applying,” says Graber.

Once the FCC has sorted out those criteria, they will decide when the applications for an LPFM license will be available, which could be anytime in the next six to 18 months.

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