There's almost no point in listening to radio in Charlotte. Sure, you have your choice of syndicated shows from other markets, lame commercials and the same five songs on an endless loop. You might even turn to WFAE, but a lot of that is National Public Radio content that doesn't originate here.
What if you could turn the dial to fresh, local music and information that affects your specific neighborhood, from Wesley Heights, Eastland, or Beatties Ford to Plaza Midwood? Moreover, what if you had a say in the on-air content and could use the platform to improve life in your community?
Those last questions aren't simply rhetorical. Charlotte recently hosted the final stop of the national "Reclaim the Airwaves" tour, produced by the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project — so-named for the Greek trickster who stole fire from the gods and gave it to the people. Prometheus organizer Jeff Rousset crisscrossed the country for months, teaching people about "the biggest chance in over a generation for groups to gain access and ownership of the broadcast airwaves."
Community radio is a different animal from the mainstream models of commercial radio, which caters to sponsors, or public radio, which focuses on national issues. Community radio serves strictly limited geographic areas and concentrates on social value: "90 percent community, 10 percent radio" is an oft-repeated philosophy. It's an important medium for many reasons: it reflects the varied experiences of diverse populations, fosters social movements and quickly disseminates vital information to otherwise ignored groups. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, community radio station WQRZ was the only station left standing in the Mississippi Gulf coast region. Though power was out everywhere, it was able to broadcast emergency news off the power of a car battery.
Attendees at the Charlotte presentation, held at AKA Creative studio in South End, had various goals for their own LPFM stations: stronger college radio programming, a hip-hop/talk station for mature listeners and theater radio were among the ideas floated. Shannise Jackson, a Charlotte educator, was interested in training citizen journalists. "If everyday people are trained in investigative reporting or taught to put news packages together with information that's pertinent, the news available becomes broader and more diverse," Jackson said.
The need is greater than ever. In 2000, the Federal Communication Commission allowed unprecedented consolidation of media companies, with the net effect being that most TV and cable channels, radio stations and national magazines are now owned by a tiny circle of ultra-conservative, uber-powerful corporations. To offset the loss of media diversity, the FCC at that time also created the low power FM (LPFM) service for community, nonprofit and educational groups. These 100-watt stations would have a tiny broadcasting range, to encourage hyper-local reporting from people who lived within specific communities.
Big Radio struck back with the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act of 2000. Claiming the LPFMs interfered with their signals, they gutted the service's potential by limiting LPFMs to low-density, rural areas. Prometheus, as part of a coalition of diverse groups, waged a 10-year campaign to rescind this legislation and foster a more democratic media — and won a major victory. In January 2011, Congress enacted the Local Community Radio Act, which mandated the FCC to free up thousands of LPFMs nationwide. As a result, in 2013, nonprofits, unions and educational community groups will have the chance to apply for these new, noncommercial FM radio licenses. Even better, the FCC announced the removal of restrictions on urbanized communities.
Charlotte has seven guaranteed frequencies that are opening up on the dial, and about 12 more that may later open up. But for potential applicants, obtaining a license is a process that will take time.
"This isn't something to do the night before the filing deadline," Rousset warned. "You have to start getting ready now."
Readiness entails people interested in becoming owners aligning with (or forming) a nonprofit organization — a requirement for eligibility; filing the application for an LPFM license, which is free; and fundraising to pay for equipment and an engineering study, the only true upfront cost. The engineering study, which is a report on the best frequency and location for a potential antenna, as well as other technical issues, must be included in the application and can cost $5,000 to $10,000.
The application window will likely open only for a week or two in October 2013, so interested parties need to use the time in between to get their paperwork together. Rousset also suggests like-minded groups form alliances, so if one group receives a license and the other doesn't, the non-licensed group can still come on as part of the board and share programming.
Bridget Sullivan, the executive producer of Voices from the Community, a Charlotte-based online radio show featuring jazz, international music and public affairs, said she would use the LPFM license to work with younger people in creating public-affairs programming. Sullivan, a former on-air host at KBOO 90.7, Portland's 47-year-old independent radio station, spoke passionately about the need for community radio in Charlotte's underserved neighborhoods.
"At the end of the day, community radio empowers the structure of any community, because it uplifts the many voices that go unheard. Commercial radio is never going to do that," Sullivan said.
To learn more about the application process, go to www.PrometheusRadioProject.com. To have further conversation about developing community radio specifically in Charlotte, email Bridget Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.Voicesfromthecommunity.co (no "m").