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  • Low-power station applicants

    Fourteen local groups have applications pending with the Federal Communications Commission to launch low-power FM stations.

    Applicant Frequency Community
    Midtown Radio92.1Sacramento
    Solar Garden Learning and Entertainment93.1Davis
    Process Theatre93.3Sacramento
    Sacramento Area Peace Action 95.7Sacramento
    Sacramento Old City Association95.7Sacramento
    Ubuntu Green95.7Sacramento
    Access Sacramento 96.5Sacramento
    Williams Memorial Church 99.1Sacramento
    Music Only Makes Sense102.9Davis
    Sacramento French Cultural Society103.1Sacramento
    Sacramento Bicycle Kitchen103.1Sacramento
    Verge Center for the Arts103.1Sacramento
    Women’s Civic Improvement Club103.1Sacramento
    North Sacramento Community Radio104.7North Sacramento

Local groups seeking old-school radio stations

Published: Friday, Jan. 17, 2014 - 12:00 am

In the age of streaming music, free podcasts and digital downloads, more than a dozen Sacramento area nonprofits are trying to launch old-fashioned radio stations in 2014.

Fourteen local groups have applications pending with the Federal Communications Commission to launch low-power FM stations. The opportunity – poised to reverse the long-term trend toward big media consolidation of the radio waves – comes after years of lobbying by interest groups.

While the National Association of Broadcasters sought to maintain the current radio landscape, advocates led by the Prometheus Radio Project sought to persuade the FCC to allow nonprofits to utilize frequencies in between those used by existing commercial broadcasts.

“It was an arduous process of fighting the lobbying of the big guys,” said Todd Urick, of the Davis-based Common Frequency, a nonprofit advocacy group that advised numerous groups nationally and a handful of the local groups seeking low-power stations.

Low-power FM stations are limited to 100 watts and a broadcast radius of 3.5 miles from the transmission tower. Before applications were solicited, engineers painstakingly studied the existing landscape to find broadcast holes in which a weak station could operate without interfering with commercial broadcasts.

In December, the FCC announced it had received more than 2,800 valid applications through the end of the Nov. 14 filing deadline – 283 from California alone. The commission is notifying applicants whether they are in the running for their desired frequency.

The 14 local applicants include at least one, Access Sacramento, that already produces an Internet radio broadcast. But for the most part, it’s hard to say what sorts of broadcasts the organizations that applied for stations will produce.

“The FCC, they are not in content policing” said Julia Wierski, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project. “They don’t get into the weeds of determining what is better programming.”

The applicants include: Midtown Radio, Access Sacramento, Solar Garden Learning and Entertainment, Process Theatre, Sacramento Area Peace Action, Sacramento Old City Association, Ubuntu Green, Williams Memorial Church, Music Only Makes Sense, Sacramento French Cultural Society, Sacramento Bicycle Kitchen, Verge Center for the Arts, Women’s Civic Improvement Club of Sacramento Inc. and North Sacramento Community Radio.

Seven of the local applicants have been told they have submitted valid applications and await further administrative approvals. The other seven nonprofits will have to compete for a slot or combine efforts after filing to create stations at the same two “open” frequencies.

Wierski said some groups could receive their construction permits as early as this month, starting their 18-month clock to get up and running. Better-prepared groups could begin operations in 2014, but 2015 might be a more reasonable timeline for most.

“It’s seemed like an interesting opportunity for our students,” said Joe Parente of Process Theatre Inc. “There are invaluable lessons for kids.”

Process Theatre, which according to its website focuses on media-arts education for diverse populations, was originally one of two applicants for the 93.3 frequency, but the Sacramento Blues Society later withdrew its application.

Common Frequency’s Urick said the groups will attempt to promote their cause through radio, but he said he didn’t know what they’ll sound like.

“I can tell you that Common Frequency encourages formats that promote music and voices not heard on commercial radio, the 99 percent of music commercial radio refuses to play, community affairs programming, local and independent news, and underrepresented voices tackling subjects important to the community, like local debates/elections and neighborhood/local/citywide concerns,” Urick said.

The impending new voices on the radio dial buck the trend toward Internet-based delivery and the general decline of radio as more people turn to their smartphones and iPods for listening content. But Urick said low-power FM is still a viable communications tool.

“This great thing about radio is that it is ubiquitous, easy, and free. Everyone still has a radio in their car,” Urick said.

He said the problems with streaming Internet radio include the lack of a proven revenue stream and the difficulty finding an audience.

“Everybody is talking about how network television is a dinosaur and everything’s going digital,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “This is old old-school. The golden age of radio was in the ’30s.”

He said a proliferation of new low-power stations has the potential to be a major development for local nonprofits and to alter the radio landscape that has steadily trended away from local programming and toward nationally syndicated shows.

He said when he started in Syracuse in upstate New York there were lots of local talk shows. He said those shows have gradually been replaced by national shows such as “The Dr. Laura Program,” which features personal advice from host Laura Schlessinger.

While the Internet has allowed musicians to circumvent the small circle of people who decide what plays on commercial radio, Thompson said there is so much music uploaded to the Internet that finding good content has become problematic. Adding another local curator could be a boon for local artists, Thompson said.

“By and large … the more voices you have, the better,” Thompson said.

But Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of the radio trade magazine Talkers, said it’s far too early to project the impact of these new players.

“It’s like trying to figure out the weather,” Harrison said. “It really comes down to what they use it for.”

Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.

Read more articles by Ed Fletcher

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