In the age of the Internet, the biggest opportunity in localized programming may come from a much older medium: the radio.
Sometime this fall, the FCC will open up thousands of low-power FM stations to community organizations. LPFM signals operate at 100 watts and reach about 3.5 miles. That may not seem like much, but in urban areas, that could mean meaningful, localized programming for thousands.
Until this point, LPFM stations were effectively banned because they couldn’t occupy frequencies within three clicks of an existing commercial station. The new rules will divvy up new community radio licenses, based on whatever is available on the dial that doesn’t interfere with existing signals.
"The Internet is good at a lot of things, but it hasn't met a lot of people's needs for local," says Brandy Doyle, policy director for the LPFM advocacy group Prometheus Radio Project.* "The community radio station connects them to the place they live."
That's what Phoenix resident Francisco Flores is hoping. Flores has been preparing an application for a radio license for the non-profit Coalition Phoenix, looking at technical details like where to place a signal. Flores expects his station to be educational, especially for those in Phoenix who don’t rely on the Internet, informing them about issues like health, immigration and general news.
"Radio is immediate," he says. "For us it is a way to reach the mother of the family or the father who is working or for the people who are out and about in the city who are doing their thing."
LPFMs are the legal successor to pirate radio stations, broadcasts that saw their programming as a source of diversity and social justice that wider media options didn’t provide. In 2000, the FCC began offering LPFM licenses as an alternative specifically to noncommercial organizations. But under pressure from commercial radio, federal regulations limited where these stations could take root.
Prometheus has advocated for expanding LPFM since 1998 and was instrumental in helping pass the Local Community Radio Act, enacted in January 2011. The organization has helped prospective station operators through all the aspects of applying for and establishing a radio signal, from how to develop content to how to pinpoint the right place in the city for an antenna. Its staff says it has fielded calls from over 3,000 individuals who are interested in a community radio license and says overall interest may be multiples higher than that nationwide.
"These community stations counter all of those negative effects that occurred with the centralization of radio program," says Shawn Campbell, general manager of the Chicago Independent Radio Project, which currently streams its local music broadcast online. "It will get people talking about local issues, local music and not just the mainstream. What it really does is restore radio's strengths."
Currently there are about 832 LPFM stations nationwide, according to FCC records. WXBH in Louisville, Kentucky, specializes in local and regional music, KPYT serves as an important cultural programmer for the Pascua Yaqui tribe in Tucson, Arizona. WUVS in Muskegon, Michigan, merges local news with cultural coverage aimed at the local African-American population. There's even a station in Sitka, Alaska. KAQU's programming consists entirely of a live feed of whale sounds.
While it is unlikely that the FCC will approve a radio station devoted entirely to the sounds of the local subway station, existing LPFM stations show what kind of diversity can be brought to radio in urban area.
How much room there is on the dial differs by market. Prometheus has estimates of how many stations might be divvied in large urban areas. Logically, more populous markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago may allow for anywhere from three to seven new stations. Some places like St. Louis might see up to 30 new licenses.
She cautions that the numbers are on the optimistic side though says they illustrate the potential to expand local programming in urban markets. But it also is clear that this round of applications will be one of the last chances to create urban FM stations.
What that means is that there will be stiff competition for licenses in more crowded cities. Prometheus is working with the FCC to hash out how licenses will be awarded. A long organizational history, a promise to provide at least eight hours of local programming and a pledge to stay on air at least half of every day will score points on the application. Prometheus is working to make local programming a requirement rather than a preference in the applications.
In Columbus, there might be room for up to 16 new LPFM stations, according to the Prometheus estimates. The Ohio Hispanic Coalition has already staked out two addresses in the city, one on the west side and the other on the north side, from which it plans to transmit localized Spanish-language content. The keyword, says Executive Director Josué Vicente, is localized. The existing Spanish-language stations in town do little beyond playing Spanish language songs.
"It would allow us to communicate to the community in a time sensitive manner and have access to the community," says Josué Vicente, executive director of the organization. "Community radio stations can be used to reach into a particular community."
Vicente, Campbell, Flores and likely the thousands of other aspiring license owners recognize how important the next year will be in shaping local content. The FCC’s application window will only be open for five days and afterwards the opportunity to reshape urban FM radio will likely never come up again.
"It's the beginning of community radio but the end times of new FM stations," says Ian Smith, program director at Prometheus.
* An earlier version of this post misidentified the Prometheus Radio Project.