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Big News for Little Radio

Sara Edwards remembers waking up to realize that the New Kids on the Block concert in her dream was actually coming from her clock radio. Amoshaun Toft remembers listening to television broadcasts in his TV-less childhood home. Rahwa Habte remembers hearing reports of the war in her native Somalia where her father still lived.

These were the stories from radio’s past shared by panelists at a mid-afternoon meeting at the Langston Hughes Institute in late January. The meeting, organized by an activist arm of Brown Paper Tickets, was the first in a series of information sessions concerning the future of radio.

At the end of 2012, President Obama signed an order allowing the Federal Communication Commission to open low-power FM bands to nonprofit groups in urban areas. With a broadcast range of up to three miles, these stations will provide the airwaves—currently crowded with corporate-owned commercial stations—with some community relief.

“This is a unique opportunity,” said moderator Sabrina Roach, a veteran of community radio and BPT employee. “We don’t expect another window to open any time soon.”

Roach cited research that estimates there are roughly 15,000 low-power FM signals available nationwide. A handful of those, maybe eight, will be up for grabs in Seattle when the application window for new stations opens in October. That’s a ways off, but starting even a small radio station is an intimidating and complicated process, which is why BPT is educating the public about the possibilities now.

At the casual January info session, long-time community radio activists gathered with curious neophytes to hear a panel opine on the benefits of local radio. Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs director Randy Engstrom offered encouragement from the city and described his own experience at the Evergreen State College's station KAOS. Edwards explained how her employer, 4Culture, has helped community radio stations secure grants for equipment and programming.

The panel also featured two organizations that are planning to apply for LPFM licenses. Toft, a professor of communications, talked about the student-run station at Bothell. Somali native Habte shared the story of OneAmerica, an immigrant rights group that hopes to use radio to help non-native English speakers and the illiterate.

A difficult road lies ahead for anyone wanting to get onboard. The first barrier is the start-up cost of broadcasting equipment, which is estimated between $10,000 and $30,000. The second is the need to fill 24 hours of programming, though the FCC does allow a grace period to new stations while they scale up. Third is patience—considering the time it takes to process a registration and build a transmitter, five years could pass from the time a group applies to the moment it lights up an “On Air” sign. Still, the possibility is there.

“Imagine starting at the airport,” Roach said, “listening to OneAmerica low- power FM in SeaTac, then driving to the Central District and hearing 206 Zulu, broadcasting from Washington Hall, keep driving past 21st and Union and hear Hollow Earth Radio, then keep on driving north to Bothell and hear students and community radio there.”

See more in the March 2013 issue   →