Don't like what's playing on the radio? Start your own station

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March 21, 2011 - 7:00pm

For many, starting a personal FM radio station would be a dream come true: playing your favorite music over the airwaves, or discussing topics that affect your life. While that dream will remain just that for most Americans, a new federal law will make it easier for communities to create low-cost, locally oriented radio stations.

Jessica Morrow looks over the automation systems playlist and rotations for the former Callaway LPFM station, 102.7 "The Way." Courtesy photo

Click here for a full-size map of current Nebraska LPFM stations; stations that were approved and have ceased operating; and stations that applied for licenses but were not approved. Graphic: Hilary Stohs-Krause

Bill Moyers talks with journalist Rick Karr and media activist Hannah Sassaman about the future of the nation's low power radio stations during a 2007 PBS program.

Co-sponsored by Nebraska representative Lee Terry, the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 expands the space available on the dial for low power FM radio, and a new filing window for station applications could be announced as early as next year.

Some Nebraskans, both rural and urban, have already pioneered the technology, and are working to create content tailored to their communities - like James Morrow. He founded 102.7FM "The Way" in the Central Nebraska town of Callaway.

"We broadcasted for a little over five years to the local community," he said. "We programmed a lot of Christian music; basically, the format that wasn't in this area."

"The Way" was the first low power FM, or LPFM, radio station in Nebraska, broadcasting from 2004 to 2010. LPFM stations broadcast in between full power stations on the dial, using the amount of energy needed to power a 100-watt light bulb. They're noncommercial stations run by nonprofit organizations, focusing on local communities like Callaway and Scottsbluff, where Cavalry Chapel operates 107.9 KNIF.

Station operator and Calvary Chapel pastor Kevin Carradine said the station airs mostly local Christian teaching, alongside some syndicated programs.

"The benefits are getting our message out that people can just tune into the radio if they can't make it to us personally," he said.

Eight LPFM stations were originally approved to operate in Nebraska, but only four remain, according to the Federal Communications Commission (see their page on the LPFM service). Nationwide, the commission counts about 835 LPFM stations, but radio advocacy organizations expect thousands of people to apply for new licenses when the new window opens.

Philadelphia nonprofit Prometheus Radio Project has fought for more than a decade to get the Act passed, said Maggie Avener, technical and training organizer.

"That just puts a lot of new voices and a lot of new content on the air," she said, "which we think is really exciting."

However, not everyone thought that expanding low power radio was a good idea.

Some of the biggest opponents to the Local Community Radio Act were the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio.

Volunteers raise the tower in 2004 for low power FM radio station KAWA 102.7, which broadcast for five years in the Central Nebraska town of Callaway. Courtesy photo

"We were cautiously apprehensive" when the bill was introduced, said Marty Riemenschneider, president and executive director of the Nebraska Broadcasters Association. The NBA advocates on behalf of 110 radio stations and ten television stations in the state.

"We wanted to make sure ... that there were some safeguards built in," he said.

Riemenschneider and other commercial broadcasters feared interference from low power stations, which are now allowed to broadcast from spots closer on the dial to existing stations. They worked with Congress to add strict guarantees to protect full power stations, giving them priority over low power start-ups.

However, a 2003 study commissioned by the FCC found little to no chance of interference from LPFM stations.

"As far as I'm concerned, that's just a version of classicism that impacts the airwaves," Avener said. "And we don't think it's fair, and we're not happy with it, but it's also nothing new or unexpected."

Even though few Nebraskans took advantage of the LPFM filing window ten years ago, advocates like Avener said it could have a lot of impact on the state.

"It's great for small towns or for areas where there's a fairly close-knit community," Avener said. "So farmer worker communities, for example, have done a lot of neat things with low power radio."

She described the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida, who use their low power radio station to work on food justice and worker's rights for farm laborers. And for a state with a large number of immigrants and refugees, LPFM stations like Lincoln's 93.7 KJFT can help transition Nebraska residents to their new lives. The station plays news, weather and music, all in in Chinese. It also airs some programs that teach American English.


Click here for the full text of the 2010 Local Community Radio Act bill:

Click here for the 2004 Federal Communications Commission's report to the U.S. Congress on the low power FM interference testing program:

Click here for the full text of the 2003 final report from the MITRE Corporation detailing results of its low power FM study:

Founder Danny Li said "it's very encouraging" for international populations to hear their own language when they're starting a new life in a foreign country.

Low power FM is also more accessible for fringe or minority communities, mostly because it's cheaper than full power - much cheaper. Operators for the Scottsbluff, Callaway and Lincoln stations estimated their monthly costs at between $500 and $2,000, compared with $20,000 to $30,000 per month for commercial stations.

But there are downsides, as well - the most obvious being the shorter broadcast range. While some rural low power stations can be heard 15 miles away, the average distance for low power stations is about five miles. As a result, full power stations can be more appealing to rural audiences.

"The Way" experienced this issue firsthand when a full power station near Callaway began broadcasting nearly identical content.

"What we found is that kids would tune into that when they were going to Kearney or going to North Platte, and then when they returned home, the dial never changed back," Callaway's Morrow said. "They kind of just forgot about us."

Staffing the station can also be a problem, Carradine said. Many, if not all, low power FM stations are run by volunteers, and it takes a lot of work to stay on the air.

And once you get going, Morrow said, people start to rely on you.

"It's an ongoing job to keep a community even of 700 people informed," he said with a chuckle. "Because they rely on that information after a while, and then it turns into a responsibility that needs to be fulfilled. Or else you're letting the local community down."

And as with any nonprofit, funding is an ever-present concern. In fact, that's what forced Callaway's low power station off the air in 2010. Morrow said he found himself going to the same businesses over and over again for contributions.

But despite his experiences, Morrow encouraged those interested in starting low power FM stations to apply when the next window opens.

"I still think, under the right circumstances, you know, the right management, the right community, it can be a great thing for Nebraska," he said. "I hope that this next window will see more interest throughout the state."

The FCC is working on the rules for the new LPFM service; new filing windows for station applications are not expected until next year.



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