Big companies keep getting bigger, it seems, and smaller mom-and-pop establishments struggle to keep up. That’s not true just for stores and restaurants but also for radio stations. Across the United States, however, there’s a new, burgeoning market for low-power FM (LPFM) stations, which tend to be community oriented, centered and supported, with a broadcast radius of less than five to 10 miles.
As of 2000, there were 500 licenses issued to LPFM stations across Canada by the Radio Communications and Broadcasting Regulatory Branch of Industry Canada in conjunction with the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, across the low (50 watt) and very low (10 watt) markets. Generally, LPFM station licenses are only granted in remote areas.
In the US, the Federal Communications Commission—the same folks behind the net neutrality regulations safeguarding the fair and open Internet—first authorized LPFM stations in 2000, issuing more than 800 licenses across the country, mainly to organizations like churches, community centers and civil rights groups. There was pushback, of course, but these stations have continued to gain ground over the years, according to Freepress.net. As of September of this year, there are more than 1,364 licensed stations in the US, an increase of 215 stations since June 2015, reports Jennifer Waits for Radio Survivor.
The future of radio might just reside, at least in part, in these LPFM stations. Marika Partridge has been in radio for most of her career and spoke with Geeks and Beats before joining a panel on the topic at the Future of Music Coalition’s Music Policy Summit in Washington, D.C. recently. After several years in Alaska, she moved to Washington to serve as an engineer and, later, producer of NPR’s All Things Considered. She’s been a driving force behind the creation of Takoma Radio, an LPFM station scheduled to go live early next year in the DC suburbs.
Marika Partridge: I am a lifer in radio. I stumbled on radio at about age 20 and started working in radio then, wondering how I could ever have not discovered a radio studio before that. That was in Juneau, Alaska. And then I moved to Sitka not knowing what was going on over there and the radio was just starting there too. Someone who was key in that effort died in a climbing accident, so I became the replacement to the starter of Raven Radio, KCAW in Sitka. It’s community radio, it’s still vibrant. It’s an NPR community radio station, lots of volunteers on the air. I came to DC to work at NPR from that location, from community radio in Alaska.
When I got here, the radio landscape was like, “Oh man, what? What am I supposed to listen to here?” I didn’t find the diversity, the innovation, the accessibility, the willingness to change and be flexible of community radio. It just didn’t exist here. I think Washington, DC, has a huge lack of accessible community radio, and that means you’re training people and they’re really getting on the air, new voices are getting on the air. There isn’t that chance here right now. When I heard four years ago there was a chance having low- power FM on community airwaves here, I jumped on it. I’ve been volunteering on that effort for over four years.
The future of radio? Is it just a kickback that I’m in love with radio because I once loved it? No. I don’t find myself listening to Internet radio. Everyone has a radio, it’s a level playing field. Cars are equipped with radios. People of all types have cars. This is not a rich person’s thing. Internet can be, and it requires you to be stationary, unless you’re moving around with your iPhone. Not that many people, I think, are using their phones and computers for real radio. Radio really does still exist.
People do not know what we’re bringing here [with LPFM]. To hear the actual voices of children and old people and different languages… Programming in different languages is going to be fine on our airwaves. Let’s hear some lullabies in Amharic or Spanish or French! All these languages are spoken in households around here but they’re not represented. Okay, you can get some Spanish language radio. We want to be a source of bridging culture. We haven’t really heard radio like this—in fact, I’ve never heard it either. It’s new. This is low-power FM in an urban area that’s very, very diverse.
One of the ideas of Takoma Radio is no one will get a show as one person. You need two people to get a show. You have to find somebody else who believes in your show, it’s not enough for you to believe in it. It has to be a shared thing. And hopefully, as I say to people, find a partner who doesn’t look like you. If you can.
Geeks & Beats: There seems to be a real spirit of collaboration when it comes to low-power FM stations, not just among the people who are supporting it but among the radio stations themselves. Isn’t Takoma Radio working with WERA in Arlington, an LPFM station housed at Arlington Independent Media?
MP: We’re helping them now. We’re going to help each other. I think we’re a little ahead of them on content and training. We’re ahead of many, I think, because we have this commitment to story. We collaborated from the early days with trainers who are in a audio story telling collective nonprofit called From Block2Block. Our organization, the organization that applied to the FCC that holds the license that has radio as a project is Historic Takoma. They’re a very forward thinking historic society in a small town that covers, it’s part DC and part Maryland. They have this beautiful belief, Historic Takoma believes history happens every day. It’s all pertinent.
G&B: Do you think that, while it’s a difficult process to obtain an LPFM license from the FCC, we’ll see more of these stations? Community-based, low-power FM, featuring people in your own neighborhood on the air, hosting shows, having discussions, reading stories, singing songs in different languages– is this a component of the future we’re going to see become if not prolific, at least more populated?
MP: I think local is in. Hey, it’s hip! Local is back! Yay! I think it really went away. We began to buy corporate food and we watched corporate media. The local talent—it’s all been taken over on a screen somehow. We’re reclaiming local, I think. I see it.
Takoma Park has a very strong local passion. In a way maybe it didn’t go away here, but local’s been barked away in so many communities. They want to be national. The mom and pop radio of the ‘70s, even, by the ‘80s and ‘90s had been bought up by the large, corporate entities, taking away the local feeling. The local feeling has been incrementally and then by big grabs taken away. There’s not local radio here. I can’t go anywhere and say I’d like to do a show. We have some really awesome show ideas coming up from people who have incredible teams of interested, engaged citizens from all backgrounds. We’re going to have the best education forum, honestly, it’s going to be riveting. It’s going to be a signature show.
G&B: There’s a comparison to make here. People are looking to things like Facebook and listservs and what have you for news in their local communities. Why not radio? Why not do the same there? We have the Washington Post, obviously, we have the New York Times for our newspapers. But people love the local community newspaper. Same thing with TV broadcasts—we have the local ABC, CBS, NBC affiliates. Why not get your news from a local—in the case of Arlington Independent Media, they have a local newscast once a week. Why not radio too?
MP: In that spirit, our beautiful, long-running town newspaper, the Takoma Voice, went out of print and online only in a way that made even me, as a real staunch supporter and former contributor, it’s not even on my radar. We’re collaborating with the Takoma Voice, they’re going to be our news department. They cover the town news. We’ll give them currency and they’ll give us currency. We won’t have to hunt a news department. They are a news department. They’re really seasoned. They want to work with us, we want to work with them. Once we’re on the air, we will be linking.
G&B: You mentioned earlier the hope for programs in various languages. As a community reporter myself for several years, you go into these elementary schools in the DC area and other major cities, and you’ve got kids from every corner of the globe speaking 10, 20, 30 different languages all learning together. Why not have that reflected? Is it not the evolution of new immigrants to the country 100 years ago living in ethnic neighborhoods until eventually the kids grew up and moved out because they became fluent?
MP: Wouldn’t it be comforting for those children to have their language verified on the radio? I love the job of program director. It was my best job in a way. In Sitka, I loved it. I didn’t think of this then but now that I’ve got this idea for Takoma Radio really coming to fruition: I think a program that follows a thread like ballads or dance music or story songs, then you have someone from El Salvador—your team is three. Put me on the team because I want to do the show (laughs). Me with my friend from El Salvador and my friend from Ethiopia. And we say, okay, we’re going to do an American ballad, an Ethiopian ballad and an El Salvadorian ballad or a lullaby. The commonalities, the ways of expressing—while we’d have programming in other languages, that’s a little bit of a separator.
If you don’t speak that language, that’s hard. I want that. That’s ok. You can turn your radio off. It’s not going to suit everyone all the time. Believe me, it won’t, It can’t. It will be what they call patchwork programming. It’s not seamless, easy listening. When they suddenly go to Amharic, people are going to turn it off. It’s ok. I also want to have programs that consciously connect communities with the language of music. We say we’re going to put the baby to bed; what’s the song? What’s the “put the baby to sleep” song for you, and for you? I think that’ll be really fun. That’ll be a signature show, too, if we can get it going. People enjoy that. It’s a transformational moment.
Then you’re going to see those DJs on the street! That’s the cool thing about local radio. You’ll go oh, I loved what you did last night on the radio, that really worked.
G&B: Or, maybe, somebody has a show you don’t particularly love and you bump into them at the local coffee shop and you say hey, I’ve got a bone to pick with you. Next thing you know, you’re a guest on there and you’re still engaged in this dialogue and you’re adding a new viewpoint, a new perspective, or just a different set of opinions and that’s good for everybody too. It’s more engagement.
MP: I think that Takoma Radio is on the right track.
Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but I really believe there is a return to the local and that grant money is available for local and that what we’re offering is exciting. It will be exciting to a funder. I don’t think it’s going to be easy to raise money from individuals. I think that the future of radio is defined, for LPFM, for the small little local voice, it’s going to be to find a significant funders to help it. It’s community service. It’s an open door, educational opportunity for teens, for seniors, demystifying technology. I think radio in a community setting, it’s an open door for seniors to learn how to be paper-free, learn how to use programs they’re not familiar with computers they’re not familiar with. For kids, giving the talent to use, for those who are tech savvy, a different kind of experience too. It’s kind of like analog, radio. It’s a ground and middle ground, a meeting of technology old and new.