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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Madison community groups find a voice in low-power FM radio
Power grab
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Credit:Matt Mignanelli

Up the hill from Vitense Golf Course on Madison's west side sits an unassuming single-story home. I pull into the driveway on a recent sunny autumn day, double-check the address and look for a few clues that this, indeed, is a hub for perhaps one of the most important media revolutions currently under way. And there they are: a small purple neon swirl hangs from eaves of the garage announcing 99.1, and tucked between two pine trees is a tall, spindly radio antenna.

Over the past 15 years, in no medium more than radio, corporate interests have quickly consolidated ownership and control of stations. In the mid-1990s, the nation's 10,000 radio stations were owned by some 5,000 entities. By 2008, four companies - most notably Clear Channel - had gobbled up more than 50% of the radio airwaves and were increasingly elbowing out locally produced programming in favor of formulated play lists and nationally syndicated talk shows. (Conservative talk show hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have a combined Clear Channel audience of more than 20 million listeners daily.)

Yet, in a quixotic effort to counter this trend, community organizers and pirate radio station enthusiasts tried 10 years ago to convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to open up the airwaves to small, community-focused stations. Surprisingly, they won approval for their far-reaching plan.

Although limited to so-called low-powered FM stations emitting 100 watts each, the effort yielded nearly 800 new stations. Technically known as LPFMs, the stations are more commonly called micro-broadcasting stations. And, like small-batch craft brewers, these stations are pumping out an intensely local product. One in rural Oregon broadcasts workers' rights bulletins in Spanish to apple pickers; another provides information about tenant rights to residents of Chicago housing projects.

Four years ago, CityWIDE, 99.1 FM, launched in Madison. Music shows Old Coot's Hoot and Zyedeco Zap share airtime with Free Thought Radio, produced by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. There is also programming on Tibetan monks and C-SPAN-style coverage of neighborhood meetings.

City Church, a recent merger of Lake City Church and Mad City Church, also operates a low-power FM radio station on Stoughton Road that plays Christian music targeted to young listeners, ages 12 to 36.

In a limited but powerful way, these stations offer a distinct alternative to the safe and familiar programming choices favored by Clear Channel.

"I see radio as an opportunity for communities to fight back against media consolidation," says Candace Clement, outreach manager for Free Press, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that lobbies in support of independent media. "It is not just symbolic."

The number of micro-broadcasting stations could soon increase. Last January, President Barack Obama signed into law the Local Community Radio Act, a potentially far-reaching initiative that in the upcoming months will open up the license process for several hundred or more micro-broadcasting community stations around the country, especially in urban and suburban areas.

No one is quite sure when the FCC will begin accepting applications, but it must do so within two years from the passage of the law.

Interested parties should prepare now, says John Anderson, who has spent the last decade studying radio and the FCC as a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It's the last massive expansion we'll see in community radio," he says.

Bob Park walks out the front door of his home and down the driveway, announcing in a calm voice, "I forgot that we had a meeting." He is trim, with a Santa Claus white beard and a gray ponytail. His chest pocket is filled with pens.

A retired engineer for the state Department of Natural Resources, Park has taught himself editing techniques from free online programs and serves as 99.1's manager, stitching together an eclectic lineup of programming. He is also a tireless reporter for the station, recording neighborhood meetings and even conducting some interviews right in his home.

Striding toward me, Park asks, without a hint of irony, "Do you want a tour?"

The garage door stands wide open, displaying at least five weekends' worth of sale items. It is hard to believe that a radio station is currently broadcasting from somewhere in the depths of this garage. We push past an oily lawn mower and shimmy around rusting 10-speed bikes, golf clubs and hockey sticks. Bike wheels hang from beams, and cables snake through rafters.

In the far back there is a five-foot-tall stack of black monitors and blinking red lights, all crowned by a hulking microphone.

"We can be heard as far as Fitchburg," claims Park. "We've even had reports of car radios in Middleton picking us up, and sometimes on the higher ground on campus."

But when I ask the logical next question - how many people are listening? - Park looks at me blankly, as if that isn't at all the point, and after a beat shrugs his shoulders. "I really don't know."

For the next 30 minutes, Park talks to me about the station's programming and his hopes for a better radio tower. When I finally back out of his driveway and head downtown to talk with the longtime operations manager of the community radio station WORT 89.9 FM, I tune my car radio to 99.1 FM. The signal is perhaps stronger here than anywhere else in the city. I expect to hear detailed dispatches from an Occupy Madison rally or perhaps an earnest discussion about Buddhism. Instead the station is broadcasting one of its music shows.

A mile down the road, as I merge with afternoon traffic on the Beltline, the radio waves are still crisp. And they remain strong as I push past the open fields of the Odana Golf Course.

I suspect that I may be the only one on the Beltline listening to the station. I don't recognize the song that is playing, an eerie, low-key but catchy melody. The singer sounds remotely like a contemporary, hipster version of Bob Dylan or Donovan. It is a secret pleasure, like a private radio show.

As I roll with the three lanes of traffic past American TV and a collection of big-box stores, I keep expecting the station and the song to fade. There is no way for me to know the name of the song playing; by the time anyone goes on air to back-announce it, I will surely have driven far out of range.

Meanwhile, I suspect that the bigger stations are playing, probably for the 100th time already this week, some song from Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or the Avett Brothers. Curious, I flip to 105.1 (controlled by Entercom, a company that owns 109 other stations around the country, including its cookie-cutter "line" of Charlie-FM stations) and, indeed, it is playing a fun-spirited Doobie Brothers ditty, popular in 1972. Even though I wouldn't place this in my favorite 10,000 songs ever, it takes me less than three beats to recognize the song and begin mouthing the lyrics.

I switch back to 99.1, where the unknown song continues.

My car flows at 40 mph with traffic, outracing the radio waves, and as I rise over another hill, static interrupts the song; 99.1 grasps clarity again for a brief moment before crumpling back into static.

Low-powered FM radio is probably better recognized as "pirate radio." It was popularized in such movies as American Graffiti, featuring the real-life Wolfman Jack, who bypassed federal broadcast regulations to push out rock 'n' roll songs from a transmitter in Mexico during the '60s; and Pump Up the Volume, which starred Christian Slater as a ham radio operator who hijacked local radio frequencies to titillate his fellow high school students with brooding and horny soliloquies.

But micro-broadcasting stations are not just a 21st century name for pirate radio. Since the FCC began offering licenses for these stations, they have been encouraged to broadcast their alternative and sometimes eccentric voices on the air. And, what's more, says WORT's Norm Stockwell, the stations often play a role as community organizers.

"The real interesting story about low-powered FM," says Stockwell, "is when pirate radio became politicized. What you started seeing was people pirate broadcasting about not just music, but news of their community."

We're sitting in a backroom at WORT, a low-slung bunker-like space lined with thousands of records. Stockwell is the face of WORT, having worked there nearly 30 years, but he also generously helps other groups start micro-broadcasting stations. His baseball hat is pulled low, and he speaks calmly.

Stockwell points to the mid-1980s as the transition from what he calls the "vanity radio" of pirate radio legends like Wolfman Jack and Steve Dunifer, on whom Pump Up the Volume is reportedly based, to more politically based broadcasts. In 1986, a small-scale station, Black Liberation Radio, began broadcasting news throughout housing projects in Springfield, Ill. The station ran stories not being covered the mainstream media, including how the AIDS epidemic was disproportionately affecting black populations.

"These stations really drill into local issues," says Stockwell, who acknowledges that on larger community radio stations like WORT, programming can be too crowded to include complete coverage of neighborhood meetings or detailed round-the-clock discussions of gay rights, labor struggles or alternative medicine, as some of the micro-broadcasting stations do. "Localism is the future of radio," adds Stockwell.

The mid-1990s was the golden era for a smattering of pioneering micro-broadcasting stations across the country, including a Black Liberation Radio spin-off station in nearby Decatur, Ill., which paid particular attention to a contentious union struggle against Caterpillar; a station in southern Florida that championed rights for local tomato pickers; and Free Radio Berkeley, which broadcast from the hills surrounding the San Francisco Bay.

At the same time, pirate radio was taking on even more dramatic conflicts internationally. B-92 in the former Yugoslavia operated from unknown studios to chronicle the military conflict there (and continued to play music throughout the Bosnian War). A quasi-station known as Bush Radio organized anti-Apartheid forces by recording shows in Cape Town and distributing them around South Africa by cassette tapes.

But, in 1996 (cue, needle screeching across a record), President Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunication Act of 1996, effectively overwhelming the trend toward more locally grown radio stations. Most notably, the new law reversed decades of ownership restrictions that prohibited a single corporation from holding multiple media stations in one market.

Stockwell calls it a "massive giveaway" that set up a "land grab" by corporate interests. Clear Channel was particularly busy, increasing the stations it owned from 43 in 1996 to more than 1,000 five years later.

"In terms of what we should be doing with media in this country," says Stockwell, "this was the exact opposite."

But then, something completely unexpected happened, and it came from a surprising source: William Kennard, who had been the CEO for AT&T, took the helm at the FCC and embarked on an international tour to learn about radio in other countries. He was particularly interested in pirate radio stations in South Africa and their role in that country's move toward democracy.

"It is important to note," points out Stockwell, "Kennard is African American and, in particular, the ownership [of radio stations] by African Americans had dropped off a cliff after [the 1996 Telecommunication Act]."

When Kennard returned from overseas, he floated the radical idea of inviting community groups to start their own radio stations. It would be like ordering all the media moguls at Rockefeller Center in New York City to invite the Occupy Wall Street activists indoors to host their own shows from ham radio kits there.

Kennard's proposal was to issue 800 licenses for low-powered FM stations to nonprofit groups.

Not surprisingly, corporate interests railed against the idea. Even National Public Broadcasting lobbied heavily to stop the proposal, complaining that the new stations would clutter airwaves, especially the lower frequencies where most NPR stations exist.

Remarkably, the proposal survived and, in 2000, the FCC offered 800 new licenses. Most were in rural areas, but CityWIDE in Madison and what was then called Lake City Church landed two of the few urban licenses offered.

Compared to reality TV shows that tend to profile Americans as middle-class suburban dwellers, micro-broadcasting stations around the country provide a platform for diverse demographics. A coastal town in Maine broadcasts All Things Gay, while Rocket Radio in Davis, Calif., hosts a call-in show for elementary school kids. A station in Louisiana provides a mix of Zydeco music and tips about starting small businesses, and KPTY, which broadcasts from a reservation south of Tuscon, offers storytelling and programs about diabetes prevention in the native language Yaqui.

During the first round of applications 10 years ago, the FCC was overwhelmed with reportedly more than 12,000. Many of the applicants were religious organizations, which tended to be more organized than some of the other nonprofits that applied for licenses. Nearly half of the 800 licenses ultimately granted went to churches.

Wisconsin was awarded 44 licenses, though 33 are active today. Still, the number of licenses is disproportionately large for the state's size and population.

The First American Prevention Center, a drug-and-alcohol awareness group that works with the 1,000 or so Chippewa living near Lake Superior, received a license for WRZC; a station in the Kettle Moraine area, WFAQ, offers "a wide variety of musical and cultural information programs," according to its Facebook page; and WNRB, in Wausau, pumped out shows in Hmong to nearby Hmong residents until funding was pulled three years ago from the station's host, Northcentral Technical College.

A couple of frequencies were available in Madison. Lake City Church applied for one, and after years of searching for an acceptable station location, started broadcasting in 2007, says Tom Weeden, a volunteer engineer for the station, WIXL-LP.

Weeden says the station hopes to reach teenagers - boys, in particular - by offering a "little edgier" take on Christian music.

"A lot of Christian music is real homogeneous and very predictable, and this is an attempt to serve a different audience," says Weeden, the chief engineer for NBC 15. "We're not trying to duplicate what's already out there."

At the same time, it is not the standard fare offered on commercial rock stations.

"You're not going to hear songs about sleeping together," adds Weeden, who notes the station's signal is most clearly heard in downtown Madison and on the east side.

Seven other Madison-based groups applied for another frequency made available in 2000. When the FCC considered each of their applications, they were virtually tied. The FCC offered a solution: the groups would combine for one station.

It was a particularly tricky proposal - one group was religion based, while another was an organization of atheists. But, for four years now, the station has operated with a tenuous balance. With a few exceptions, an entity known as soulWIDE plays Christian music from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., followed by 12 hours of public affairs and specialty programming.

Media scholar Anderson, a former radio journalist who just returned to Madison after completing his dissertation on the changing media landscape for radio (Radio's Digital Dilemma: Broadcasting in the 21st Century), says that while the public is disenchanted with corporate media, individuals might not understand exactly what is wrong or how to fix it.

"Low-power radio provides them with a meaningful way to directly effect change in the local media environment," he says. "It won't solve all our problems, but I'd rather have it than not have it."

Anderson notes that corporate media fought "tooth and nail" to water down the FCC's original rules for micro-broadcasters. They succeeded in limiting the number of licenses offered and confining them primarily to rural areas.

It was not until the 2010 Local Community Radio Act that the scope of the FCC's original proposal was reinstated, says Anderson. Under the new law, the number of open frequencies could double, he adds.

That's the good news. The bad news is that this may be the final chance for community groups to compete for a piece of the radio broadcasting pie.

"This is the last opportunity that we have as the public to get access to the airwaves directly by owning or operating a radio station," says Anderson. "This is the last hurrah for community radio in the U.S."

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