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LPFMs: We Fill Community Niche

Supporters say many LPFM broadcasters have become community assets even though they operate with limited resources.

SPOKANE, Wash. Despite the limited reach of their radio signals, hundreds of low-power FM licensees in the country are providing their local communities with important programming thanks to financial support of listeners and tireless efforts of volunteers, LPFM advocates say.

Since the service was launched in 2000, the 100-watt stations have served communities, typically in rural areas, with a variety of music and public service programming. Supporters say many LPFM broadcasters have become community assets even though they operate with limited resources.

“How the LPFM station is run and who runs it is important to its ultimate success just as it is with commercial stations. Some are run better than others,” said Pete Tridish, one of the founders of the Prometheus Radio Project, a non-profit resource center that aids LPFM broadcasters launch their stations. Tridish said some stations view themselves as voices for particular segments in their community, while others are more inclusive.

“Ultimately, each station has its own goals and a view of what they consider to be success. These are really community institutions and the successful ones balance the needs of the community with their own goals,” Tridish said.

A rulemaking before the FCC, which includes relaxing or possibly expanding LPFM rules by dropping third-adjacent-channel protection for full-service FMs, is pending, said a commission spokeswoman. “We are in the process of reviewing documents received in the docket.”

The NAB has filed comments against the possibility of an expanded LPFM service. “We are still concerned that eliminating protections will be a recipe for interference for radio listeners,” a NAB spokesman told RW previously.

LPFM advocates believe the FCC should ease interference restrictions to allow for low-power FMs in thousands of places that currently do not have them, “mainly more urban areas” Tridish said.

Future growth

Two LPFM broadcasters who responded to queries by Radio World say they are satisfied with their progress and are making plans for growth.

Lupito Flores, station manager and founder of KYRS(LP) in Spokane, Wash., said, “To hear people in the community talking about radio with excitement and happy to have a truly community radio station is very gratifying. The community is very involved with (KYRS) and very supportive.”

The station, which signed on the air in 2003, has approximately 60 volunteer radio hosts and another 30 people who assist behind the scenes, Flores said.

“The station is very eclectic musically and serves the underserved and unserved populations in the Spokane community. We spotlight diverse cultures and give voices to people normally not heard on commercial radio stations. Everything from Spanish language programming to Native American music,” Flores said.

The noncommercial station, operated by non-profit Thin Air Community Radio, broadcasts from studios near downtown Spokane, a city of approximately 480,000 ranked by Arbitron as radio market 92.

“We have one small on-air room and a small office which doubles as a production room and the program director’s office,” Flores said.

The on-air studio is equipped with Macintosh computers that run MegaSeg automation software, Flores said. Approximately 60 percent of KYRS’s programming is live and locally produced. The remainder of the program schedule includes automated music and national talk radio programs such as “Democracy Now” and “Free Speech Radio News.”

Flores applied for a LPFM license in 2001 and spent the next two years fundraising. He ran an advertisement in the local paper asking for help from people to plan a local community radio station.

“I came from a non-profit background and just grew tired of commercial radio … the lack of local voices and local content. We raised $10,000 from donors through various fundraising events to purchase transmission equipment, including a brand-new Bext transmitter. We had donations of computers and other office equipment. It really became a creation of the local community,” Flores said.

Bringing in money

The station airs a variety of programs including a Persian-language hour and is about ready to launch a Russian-language program. “We have inquiries nearly every week from people interested in creating a show. As long as it doesn’t duplicate something that is already available locally, we’ll give it serious consideration,” Flores said.

The station brings in money through on-air fundraising, benefit concerts and some underwriting. Flores’ position is salaried along with that of a part-time program director. The annual operating budget in 2006 is $100,000, while the projected budget for 2007 is $120,000.

KYRS’s transmitter site is located 10 miles south of Spokane because of contour protection for a commercial station in Sand Point, Idaho, which shares the 95.3 MHz frequency, Flores said. That limited the station’s reception near downtown, so in 2005, KYRS began re-transmitting its programming over a 50-watt FM translator at 92.3 MHz, owned by another non-profit group.

Tim Stone, founder and facilities manager for WCSA(LP) in Portsmouth, N.H., calls his station a “true grassroots success.” The station, on the air since 2004, originally recruited people interested in community radio with signs around the town of 21,000 residents.

“There were about 15 of us who came together with the thought to start a real open-door radio station with no agenda. We wanted the station to reflect the community, the businesses, the culture, non-profits and so on.

“We had envisioned a musical playground with some news and public affairs, but the amount of public affairs programming we carry now has been very surprising. We have over 20 hours of weekly public affairs programming on the air,” Stone said.

WCSA, which is operated by Portsmouth Community Radio, has about 100 volunteers contributing on a weekly basis, Stone said.

The noncommercial station spent most of its startup money — which came from private donations and grants from the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, the funding program of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration — on its transmission system.

“We went all-out on that because we thought the most important things was for people to be able to hear us. We purchased a new Crown transmitter, a custom monopole and Dielectric single-bay antenna. We were on the air for under $25,000,” Stone said, whose previous radio experience was limited to a stint at his college radio station.

Other broadcast gear includes Shure SM-57 microphones, Denon CD players, Sony MiniDisc recorders, a Marantz flash recorder and a $499 Sound Design 12-channel stereo mixing board, Stone said. The station, which is automated for up to seven hours a day, uses OtsDJ automation software.

WCSA, with an annual operating budget at $50,000, broadcasts from an old mill building near downtown Portsmouth. Studios include on-air and production rooms, which occupy “what was once a large closet,” Stone said. Expansion plans call for a studio upgrade in 2007.

Fundraising, which includes live music benefits, on-air drives and some underwriting, is key to the financial survival of the 100-watt station, Stone said.

“It’s remarkable how inexpensively you can operate a radio station when you have to,” Stone said. “We do hope to eventually have a budget of $150,000 and hire a full-time paid manager.”

Meanwhile, the station continues to offer a 24/7 schedule of shows ranging from parenting and pet tips to political talk and old-time radio dramas. In fact, the variety of programming can alienate some listeners, but Stone offered an analogy.

“True community radio is really appointment listening. People will complain about the punk music show we have, but I tell people to tune in and listen to what they want. Decide when to listen. It’s like the menu at your favorite restaurant. You order what you like even though there are some things on the menu you don’t like. Regardless, you keep coming back for more. We’re sort of like that,” Stone said.

In April, 712 LPFMs were on the air, according to the latest FCC data available.