Low Power Radio Turns Up Local Pride

Communities overlooked by big-time media can set their own news agenda with low-power fm radio. There are 800 such stations now and more on the way if a bill before Congress passes.

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Low Power FM radio may not be high on your radar, but Congressional legislation introduced in late February could bring one of these small stations to you, broadcasting loud, clear and local. 

Already there are about 800 Low Power FMs on the air, mostly in small towns and rural areas. Many are community stations, adding a welcome breath of participatory local radio to the airwaves.  

The Local Community Radio Act, (HR 1147) introduced by Mike Doyle, D-PA, and Lee Terry, R-NE, would lift restrictions on Low Power FM, opening up frequencies for these small local outlets around the country.  There’s lots of space in rural areas for Low Power FM, and with this bill‘s passage, there would be even more.      
   
Jen Meyer of KEMB in Emmetsburg, pop. 4,000 in northwest Iowa, explains what’s happened to her small-town radio station, and others like it, over the past few decades.  About 25 years ago, KEMB moved to a nearby town in pursuit of a larger audience and more advertising dollars; the station’s Emmetsburg coverage dwindled to nothing. 

“They became a station that paid more attention to bigger things in bigger areas,” Meyer says. “Like other small towns, we got swept aside.”  The station eventually changed formats, and then its call sign, too.  Meyer’s story has a happy ending: KEMB has been reborn as KEMB-LP, a local radio station by and for Emmetsburg. 

Courtesy of KEMB
Brent McAllister and Rick Jones cover the Emmetsburg High School E-Hawk football games. Says Jen Meyer of KEMB: “We were thrilled to follow our team to the Iowa 1-A State Football Championship in 2008, and many radio and online listeners were thrilled, as well.”

KEMB-LP covers high school sports, festivities like the county fair and recent St. Patrick’s Day celebration, local meetings, and summertime municipal band concerts. The station plans to expand its coverage, to air city council and county supervisor’s meetings. 

At KEMB high school students build broadcasting skills as sports announcers and gain experience helping with business underwriting as a part of their marketing class.  For Emmetsburg’s recent sesquecentennial, KEMB unearthed a script from the town’s centennial celebrations and turned it into a radio play, presenting a history of Emmetsburg. One segment about school days past was recorded in the town’s one-room schoolhouse, complete with the ringing of the old school bell.  

“We threw a copy into our time capsule,” says Meyer. “Neat things like that really bring a community together.  We have so many different people with a lot of different talents that we can showcase.  It’s kind of that front porch mentality that so many communities have lost.”

Courtesy KEMB
KEMB-LP’s John Schad interviewed then-presidential-candidate Barack Obama in Emmetsburg before the Iowa Caucus.  The low power station also covered campaign stops in Emmetsburg by Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Ann Romney, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, and Michelle Obama.

Meyer believes that local radio “used to be that front porch, a place where you could get information, hear things about your community, and participate.  It was a vital link at one point.” Through low power FM and community radio, she says, “we’re trying to regain that,” to reanimate “that sense of connection and communication” that turns individuals into members of  communities. 

Local radio can have a big impact on the life of a small town.  Meyer points out that in many rural areas, local organizations are vital; the radio station gets the word out about their services and opportunities, building up interest, support, and participation for community projects.

During emergencies, local radio reaches citizens with critical information and updates. “We cooperate with the local police and water departments to get information out,” says Shawn Dakin, station manager for WNHS-LP. Dakin’s station is licensed to the high school in Newcomerstown, Ohio, (pop. 4000) 85 miles east of Columbus.

“Our rural community extends to surrounding farms,” he says. “We reach lots of people.” Dakin stresses, “The emergencies we cover locally, that’s just not going to happen with the other higher power stations in the area,”

In fact, emergency managers around the country have endorsed Low Power FM as a particularly effective medium for communicating public safety information, and have called for the expansion of the service.  Many LPFM stations have been the only channels broadcasting relevant local information during emergencies.  Last summer, KHEN-LP in mountainous Salida, Colorado, reported on a large forest fire nearby, keeping residents posted with frequent updates. More routinely,  KHEN gets the word out about emergency road closures.

Cheryl Marshall of WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky, a full power community radio station, notes that in her area, there’s not an effective emergency communications system in place; local radio often steps in.  She affirms the important role local radio plays in communicating with citizens about all kinds of public issues — of safety, health, and the environment.

One of the major issues facing communities in Appalachian coal counties is pollution, a topic people are passionate about. “We touch on so many topics that affect our lives, when it comes to water and land pollution, health care access and affordability, substance abuse, domestic violence,” says Marshall. “As a community radio station, we can do that–it’s the kind of station where you can walk in off the street, and talk about something that concerns you, or celebrate something about your community.  There’s not that layer between audience and access to the station that you see with commercial radio and big public stations.”

Marshall relates that one volunteer programmer worked half-time at her job for a year and a half, in order to build a traditional music program; as a result of her efforts, there’s now a school every summer for local kids to study with masters of Appalachian music, song, and storytelling.  It’s a model that’s spread to surrounding communities.  Marshall sees lots of potential for low power radio in Appalachia, noting that a network of small stations in the region could share resources and programming. 

Courtesy KHEN
KHEN observed St. Patrick’s Day with a fundraiser in Salida, Colorado

Many low power community stations feature diverse and eclectic programming firmly rooted in their local communities, shows that you just can’t find elsewhere on the radio.  KHEN-LP in Salida, Colorado, has one part-time paid employee who coordinates a volunteer cadre of 35 or 40 DJs.  Salida’s mayor regularly comes on, and will soon host his own local news-based show. Over KHEN-LP, local candidates appear on the air; talk shows focus on local and regional issues, including water rights, local taxes, and environmental programs.  DJs interview people of interest to the community, announce public meetings, and highlight the activities of local nonprofits.   Music programming ranges the gamut, from jazz and rock to classical, folk, and even a Latino-Polka Hour.  KHEN has poetry readings and a classical radio theatre show; local and traveling musicians regularly appear on the station.   A half-hour show called  “Weather or Not” is hosted by a developmentally-challenged man and his mentor talking about the weather in places all around the world. “And they talk about Nascar and sometimes fishing,” says Theresa Koransky, KHEN’s Station Coordinator, “You won’t find anything like it anywhere else.  The programming of our station is all about the community.  Of course, there are some out there who don’t approve of everything we air, but we openly invite them to come on down and create a show of what they feel KHEN is missing.”

Because Low Power FM stations are so small — they may not broadcast at over 100 watts — setting one up is well within the reach of almost any community.   Equipment and operating costs can be inexpensive: most stations’ yearly budgets are in the tens of thousands of dollars. 

As Low Power FM is a noncommercial service, stations rely on underwriting and listener fund drives, and may be owned by nonprofit organizations like schools, churches and neighborhood groups. In Newcomerstown, OH, WNHS-LP is run by Newcomerstown High School students.  “It’s an educational tool for the students, says Shawn Dakin.  “We have ten kids each year who go through the radio program, and a couple of them go on to work in media,” Dakin says. “We’re pretty excited about that.

Courtesy WNHS
Devon, a student at Newcomerstown High School and staffer at station WNHS, records voice tracks for late night programming

Students do live sports broadcasts, report local news, and get underwriters for the stations. They make connections with full-power stations in the area and work with the local newspaper and nonprofits to get community news and announcements onto the air.

Dakin says of Newcomerstown, “As far as local news and sports coverage, we’re a forgotten step-child in this part of the county.  Too often we only get coverage only if something bad happens, and then that’s the only impression that people get.”  WNHS provides needed local information and a sense of community identity too.  “Everybody knows about us now,” Dakin asserts.  “Some of the factories in town have us as their hold music.  And there’s nothing like going into the local pizza parlor and hearing our kids on the air. Now that’s great.” The station, he says, has really delivered on the promise of low power radio: to be  “used locally.”

Kate Blofson, in Philadelphia, works with the Prometheus Radio Project to expand Low Power FM radio broadcasting in the U.S.

 

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