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At Prometheus, LPFM Is About Community

Access still isn’t easy, but Bame and Floyd feel the service largely has met its promise

The Prometheus Radio Project “builds, supports and advocates for community radio stations that bring together and empower local, participatory voices and movements for social change.” 

We spoke with engineers Will Floyd and Paul Bame for our latest ebook, “A New Generation of LPFM.”

Radio World: Briefly recap the role Prometheus has played with LPFM.

Will Floyd: Prometheus Radio Project has been involved in LPFM since the beginning. Starting with the micro radio movement in the 1990s. At the time there was a dearth of new opportunities for noncommercial stations, while media consolidation was supercharged on the commercial side by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Prometheus grew out of the ashes of a pirate station called Radio Mutiny in West Philadelphia. Radio activists advocated for the creation of the new LPFM service despite entrenched commercial and noncommercial interests — NPR and NAB weren’t big fans of LPFM. After the service was created in 2000, industry interests pushed the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act through Congress to prevent LPFMs from being built in major markets.

​From left: Broadcast Engineer/Operations Specialist Will Floyd, Broadcast/Applications Engineer Paul Bame and Program Coordinator Lisa Kettyle are the staff of Prometheus Radio Project.

Prometheus worked with grassroots groups around the U.S. to reverse the law with a long campaign to pass the Local Community Radio Act, with that victory finally allowing new opportunities for LPFMs in cities in 2013.

Prometheus has continued to work on media ownership issues and to directly build and support new community radio stations ever since. 

The story of LPFM is a story of the little guy triumphing over larger corporate interests. And LPFMs all over the country have flourished. 

We work with community media and there are a lot of success stories — stations really making an impact because they’re focused on localism, being so connected to their communities in a way that many radio stations are not, certainly on the commercial side.

Our work includes advocacy as well as direct support. There are fewer of us on staff these days, and most have other broadcast and media jobs. We’re spread out; I run a broadcast engineering company in Texas, for example. But we are available to do service work, to be consultants, to help with FCC paperwork and compliance, to do site visits and build studios.

RW: I was going to ask whether you feel the service has met its original promise; you would say yes.

Floyd: It has definitely been a success. And claims that there would be interference or that LPFM operators would be ineffectual or hamhanded and ruin the band have been proven false. 

There are bad actors, as there are in commercial and full-power radio; but there are so many success stories of the type that activists like Prometheus and Common Frequency envisioned. There are immigrant groups, farmworkers’ organizations and cultural nonprofits for the arts that have made LPFM part of their operations, and it has flourished. 

There are ways in which the original promise hasn’t been sustained. Some stations didn’t stay on the air because they didn’t have local support and couldn’t sustain their operations. 

Also, one of the ideas behind the LPFM service was that it would be accessible — easy to apply and to maintain. But we’ve seen increasing complexity of rules for all broadcasters. Part of that comes from changing technology, but part of it is structural at the FCC, which is built to service larger stations. The forms are complex, and it can be tough for folks to apply, to understand the requirements, to keep in compliance. 

RW: What are examples of stations that exemplify what LPFM can be? 

Paul Bame: The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida is one. When it started its radio station it had already been an active organization, dedicated and skilled, with longevity under its belt. Another is CATA – The Farmworkers Support Committee, which works with farmworkers and the Latino immigrant community in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. We’re also honored to work with a lot of African American stations including WBPU in St. Petersburg, Fla., and WEQY in St. Paul, Minn.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida launched WCIW in 2003. Here, volunteers introduce Esperanza, a 15-foot animated puppet “who embodies the hopes of farmworkers for dignity and freedom in the fields.”

Floyd: A bright spot has been low-power stations that sprouted up at public access TV stations, such as at Davis Media Access in California and PhillyCam in Philadelphia. Public access TV is similar in some ways to the community radio concept, and in these cases their stations have become symbiotic and enhanced the operations of the public access stations. 

RW: I’m trying to get to the elements that are critical to success, or at least survival.

Floyd: One of the biggest is community support — access to funding through an existing organization or local foundations, or a cohesive group of volunteers who are interested in supporting and helping build the station. 

The financials of launching an LPFM can be tough for a new organization. You need to raise money through crowdfunding or other sources. Public funding is not available for LPFMs. So it’s important to have that community support and buy-in.

Public access TV station PhillyCAM in Philadelphia launched WPPM(LP) in 2016.

Bame: I suspect that if we did the research, we’d find that the percentage of LPFMs that have failed is no different than the percentage of nonprofits that have failed in general. 

RW: Are you busy as a result of the recent application window?

Bame: It’s early for most stations at this point. We are in the Station Building Assessment phase with many of them.

Floyd: It’s essentially a guided plan for your station build. We lay out a budget, a timeline, a design for equipment, a budget for broadcast engineering services — from us or someone else — and how it all fits together. 

Sometimes we’ll design a project and assist with equipment sourcing while a broadcast engineer on the ground finishes it up. Even though our rates are affordable, travel costs can still be high on an LPFM budget.

We also do referrals to equipment vendors with whom we work closely; and we may organize group buys for clients on items like transmitters.

RW: What should stations expect to spend?

Floyd: It can cost almost anything. You’re going to need at least $10,000 or $15,000, with a lot of free labor and free equipment; but you could spend a lot more to build a station. You need to decide what’s feasible for the organization and create a plan; then you know how much you’ll need to raise before you can begin construction.

The rent for a studio or space on a tower might be the most expensive ongoing expenses. And if you need to build a tall tower, or even just hire a tower climber to hang an antenna, that could easily take most of your budget. 

Bame: If you have to build a tower in a city with zoning limitations, it can get expensive in a hurry, and it can take a long time before you even get to pour the footing.  But part of our history as Prometheans is doing more with less. Even if somebody’s really strapped, we can usually work with them.

Floyd: We do a lot of creative rooftop work to find solutions where it’s feasible to build and not be so expensive.

RW: What further general advice would you give?

Floyd: We’re offering webinars geared to organizations that have CPs. These are about technical issues, fundraising, programming and operations. That includes basics: Buy your equipment from a reputable vendor. Get a new transmitter, and make sure it’s LPFM-certified. Know your Emergency Alert System obligations. Build where you are permitted to build — don’t make any adjustments without talking to an engineer or you could be in deep doodoo with the FCC.

RW: Are you sensing passion and interest among this round of applicants?

Bame: Yes. We could have used more time to organize before the window; there would have been even more interest. 

But the sands of media are changing. There are probably a lot of people who will be building these stations who don’t own a radio outside of their car. It does raise a philosophical question: What do we mean by “radio station” in a day when most people are going to hear it by streaming over the internet? What distinguishes a radio station from a podcast? 

Yet radio is still about immediacy and the connection to the community. Having community voices is still really important, and very attractive, whether you get it over your cellphone or a radio.

Floyd: There’s also something special about physicality — the fact that there’s a signal in this place, at a time when society has become less connected to the people next to us. 

It’s just a shame because it seems that at every turn, the LPFM service hasn’t been given the same status as even supposedly co-equal translators, or been truly accessible, where the FCC isn’t making you jump through so many hoops.

Bame: One of the tragedies of the windows is that the people who make mistakes on applications tend to be the people who are less familiar with the federal bureaucracy, who may not be college-educated or don’t have English as a first language. It ends up almost being a poverty problem or “you’re not an experienced white guy” problem. The people who fail to do it right are often the people who are disadvantaged — the ones LPFM is supposed to be helping.

Currently there are three mass petitioners — mass objectors — pointing out little corner cases where people made mistakes, things that the FCC in the past would have worked with applicants on. And some are getting knocked out on these technicalities — perfectly reasonable, upfront organizations, not trying to do anything nefarious.

RW: Are there other regulatory issues that you would wish would be acted upon?

Bame: The obvious one is LP-250. It would really help some stations. 

Floyd: Everyone wants more power, but stations that would benefit are the ones in rural areas where it actually makes a difference. There’s no reason not to do that. 

Bame: Prometheus took the lead for the Local Community Radio Act, and it took, what, eight years and foundation money, a lot of time and effort and good records and connections and social pressure. LP250 shouldn’t require legislation, but it’s probably going to take something similar in terms of outreach, pressure and educating to make it happen, and I don’t know where that will come from.

The Prometheus Radio Project website includes LPFM resources, webinars and FAQs. 

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