The Montgomery County Department of Public Safety permanently canceled its five Low Power FM radio stations on March 7. After the county submitted a request, the Federal Communications Commission officially canceled the county’s licenses for WRDY, WEMA, WEMZ, WEMK, and WEMQ.
Up until March, those stations were running 12-minute loops, 24/7 of public service announcements, according to Todd Stieritz, public affairs coordinator for the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety.
But that wasn’t their original intent.
The county applied for the licenses in 2013, with the motive of using the stations for in-time emergency preparedness alerts. But that never really happened, according to Stieritz.
“There was a lofty goal when we acquired these licenses. And unfortunately, the realities of staff, time, and funding, they just didn’t allow for us to devote a full-time person to developing content,” Stieritz said.
The stations only reached about 80% of the county, with the coverage areas of the 5 different broadcasting stations, according to Stieritz. He said having five different channels also made it difficult to advertise the stations to all of Montgomery County’s residents.
Stieritz also said the county just didn’t have the capacity to update the radio stations every time they needed to send an emergency alert.
For all of those reasons, the stations ended up airing only “essentially pre-canned preparedness information.”
If listeners tuned in at any time in the past year, they would hear messages on fire safety, severe weather safety, car safety, or COVID-19 information. Listeners might have even heard a message from the National Fire Administration on cooking fires, Stieritz said.
It’s important to note the cancellation of these stations had no impact on the county’s other in-time emergency messaging systems. Residents can sign up to receive alerts on their phones through ReadyMontco.
It’s not clear what the cancellation means for people waiting to apply for a Low Power FM radio station license. Those radio slots might be available for other groups or organizations to claim.
But It’s hard to say when the FCC’s next application filing window will open, according to Pete Tridish.
Tridish started the Prometheus Radio Project, which helped shepherd the legalization of community radio. He helps groups learn how to apply, build and operate low power stations. He said many people are waiting to apply for a Low Power FM station these days.
Tridish is hopeful the application window will come in the next 1-2 years.
“The opportunities are very rare,” Tridish said. He said he’s observed the window arriving about once every ten years, which is coming up.
“It’s sort of like when Jupiter intersects with Neptune and Capricorn is when the [FCC decides] to do it,” said Tridish.
Who is eligible to apply?
The FCC has a list of requirements. To start, applicants must be based in the community they intend to broadcast. They can be a government or non-profit educational institution, a public or private school or state or private university, a non-profit organization, a community group, public service or public health organization, a disability service provider or a faith-based organization.
Tridish emphasized that Low Power FM stations cannot be owned by individuals, and can only be operated on a not-for-profit basis. They also can’t sell advertising.
Tridish suggested applicants reach out to the Prometheus Radio Project to find out when or if channels are available, how to apply, and how to build a station.
Low Power FM stations give people more power over media content, explained Tridish.
“They can have a slice of the media that they’re in control of,” he said. Compared to the spaces on the internet that might “look free” but are ”largely controlled companies,” like Facebook and Twitter.
With Facebook, for example, “It’s like a black box, where you can make content for them and maybe they’ll deliver them to some of your friends and maybe they won’t. And nobody has any control.”
“You actually own the transmitter, the microphone, the studio,” Tridish said. “So when people tune in on the dial to you, there’s nothing between you and the listener. There’s no black box there… there’s no possibility for the kinds of corporate censorship and the kind of corporate profit-driven filtering.”