The struggle to get community radio off the ground and onto the airwaves has been decades long, but supporters have made major strides in recent years, and now, for the first time, Philadelphia-based community radio groups have the opportunity to get on air.
This fall the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will open its largest community radio license application-filing window to date and extend the opportunity to urban communities for the first time.
“This could really be a game changer for Philadelphia,” said Julia Wierski, director of development and communications at The Prometheus Radio Project, arguably the strongest continuous advocate for community radio in the country.
West Philadelphia radio pirates, operating as Radio Mutiny, founded Prometheus in 1998 to push the FCC to create legal opportunities for community radio. These pirates were social activists who wanted to get diverse voices, community news and cultural expression on the radio. Those values hold true today.
“Their stance was there were spaces on the dial that could be used for community media, but the FCC hadn’t created a way for community groups to get access to those spots,” Wierski said.
In 2011 their hard work paid off when the Local Community Radio Act removed unnecessary restrictions that had kept small-scale groups from obtaining Low Power FM stations, which broadcast clearly over about 3.5 miles.
Since then, community radio advocates have had to wait for regulation and policy components to fall into place, but now, from October 15-29, the FCC will accept applications for LPFM stations. Unlike past filing windows, which were only open to rural communities, this unprecedented filing window is open to urban stations too.
That means Philadelphia, where Prometheus was founded, might finally get a LPFM station.
“Think about all of the issues that the city has been facing just in the last year alone,” she said. “Everything from school closings and parents hunger striking.”
With an LPFM station in the hands of the right community group, Philadelphians could have an accessible space for meaningful discussions about these and other issues.
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“If you looked into what the radio sounded like in light of the George Zimmerman trial and people really wanting to have space to communicate with one another, right now there’s really no community radio station in Philadelphia where people have that ability,” Wierski said.
“I really think that both in times of intense struggle and debate, and also in times of celebration, that there are ways that being able to actually hear your community in the air, and… not have to worry about commercial interests dictating how long that conversation can be or how varied it can be, is really crucial.”
How to Launch an LPFM Station
Creating a LPFM radio station is no simple or inexpensive feat, but luckily for interested applicants, Prometheus is here to help.
Over the years, Prometheus has assisted hundreds of community radio stations get off the ground and has become a clearinghouse of information. Using Prometheus’ Rfree software, community radio applicants and engineers can find what low power frequencies are available in their area. The software also helps with preliminary engineering work that, if groups were to go to an engineer, would add to the initial costs.
An online checklist helps walk groups through the application. It explains what each section is looking for in easy to understand language.
And on RadioSpark, community radio groups can come together to support one another. There, anyone who wants to lend his or her time or service to a given station can offer skills and availability.
“One of the things Prometheus has really wanted [is] to… show that these are groups of people who are really interested in being of assistance to each other, and kind of strengthening from within,” Wierski said.
As it does everywhere, it will take time and money to get a Philadelphia-based LPFM station off the ground. Once the FCC grants a group a license, the group has 18 months to get on air. Wierski said building a station usually costs at least $15,000, and maintaining a station costs upwards of $20,000 annually.
In Philadelphia, there is really just one clear LPFM station available, but the city is fortunate. Some cities, like Detroit and New York, do not have any available frequencies because the dial has been crowded with commercial interests for so long. Philadelphia also has a strong history of activism, which combined with affordability, “allows a more politically minded and activist community to really flourish,” Wierski said.
“We’ve really seen a number of groups, all of which would be really inspiring additions to the current radio landscape in Philadelphia,” she said. “I think any of them would be a much needed breath of fresh air for local media.”
(Photo via Flickr user Daniel Iván)-30-
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