Why Philly has only one Low Power FM community radio station - Technical.ly Philly

Apr. 13, 2010 1:45 pm

Why Philly has only one Low Power FM community radio station

In partnership with Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, the university’s capstone journalism class, students Chelsea Leposa and Jared Pass will cover neighborhood technology issues for Technically Philly and Philadelphia Neighborhoods through May. “Welcome to WPEB 88.1FM, the first station on your dial,” radio host Shirley Randelman says into her microphone. “You’re listening to Community […]

Shirley Randelman, host of Community Action Magazine.

In partnership with Temple University’s Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, the university’s capstone journalism class, students Chelsea Leposa and Jared Pass will cover neighborhood technology issues for Technically Philly and Philadelphia Neighborhoods through May.

“Welcome to WPEB 88.1FM, the first station on your dial,” radio host Shirley Randelman says into her microphone. “You’re listening to Community Action Magazine, bringing you all the updates on what’s going on in the community and keeping it very real and personal.”

Randelman, whose show airs on Mondays from 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. on West Philadelphia Educational Broadcasters (WPEB), says her’s is one of many programs broadcast on the local station. “We talk about things that are happening in the community especially where it deals with business, advocacy and education. We cover a whole potpourri of information,” she says.

The station, which is currently being stewarded by the Scribe Video Center, is located at 52nd Street and Hazel Avenue. And its mission statement is true to Randelman’s words—its there to represent, incorporate, empower and serve the community.

“WPEB tries to represent the voiceless community. The ones who are under-represented and misrepresented by the media,” says Renee McBride-Williams, the station’s operations manager.

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“The voice of the people is the voice that needs to be heard and we need to have venues for that voice,” said Carolyn Harmon, the co-host of Community Action Magazine. Yet that voice seems barely audible around the country; there are few local community radio stations in existence to allow neighborhood voices and issues to be heard. In fact, WPEB is Philadelphia’s only licensed Low Power FM (LPFM) radio station.

First introduced in 2000, LPFM has seen its share of difficulties. Commercial channels have often lobbied against it, saying that it interferes with their signal. In response to these concerns, Congress passed a series of regulations on the licensing of LPFM stations. Current regulations ensure that that LPFM stations are far enough away from full-power stations that there is a guarantee of no interference. Of course, this poses a problem in urban areas where the radio dial is more saturated. There’s more regulations, too.

FCC guidelines dictate that LPFM stations are for used noncommercial, educational broadcasting only and that they operate with less than 100 watts of effective radiated power, or about a 3.5 mile radius.

“Minorities own only 7 percent of all local television and radio stations. Women … own only 6 percent.” – Data taken from Local Community Radio Act legislation

Halimah Marcus, development and communications associate at Prometheus Radio Project—a nonprofit dedicated to the development of low-power stations—extolled the virtues of LPFM in an interview with Technically Philly. “There is a real crisis of diversity in media, many outlets are owned by major corporations, and there is a real lack of local representation and discussion of local issues on the radio,” she says.

Prometheus, headquartered at 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue, provides help to community organizations during the process of getting a license and building a station. They also coordinate efforts to get the public involved in the FCC regulatory process and they host outreach events to promote awareness and build support for LPFM radio. The project was founded in 1998 out of a pirate radio station that wanted a legal alternative, and has since been campaigning to “free the airwaves from corporate control,” Marcus says.

Prometheus Radio Project has been active in advocating for the Local Community Radio Act. The bill, which passed the House in December, is awaiting a full vote from the Senate. The Local Community Radio Act will eliminate minimum distance requirements. It would also ensure that licensing decisions are made based on the needs of the local community.

See a video about WPEB and Low Power FM radio. Story continues below…
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“We worked closely with the Prometheus Radio Project in drafting this legislation,” says John Diamond, communications director for Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-WA) office. Cantwell is the sponsor of S.592 The Local Community Radio Act of 2009.

“The Senator has supported this bill because we’ve heard from various groups, schools, churches, community organizations across Washington that want to set up these [LPFM] stations to meet the local community’s needs. We certainly wanted to help and get involved and we were in the position to do so,” Diamond says.

“This bill creates an opportunity for many communities without a voice,” says Rep. Michael Doyle (D-PA), who sponsored the House version of the bill. “LPFM only covers a few miles but it is a powerful tool for communities.”

Diamond says that pushing the bill through the House was a huge victory, having been in the works for over five years. He says is unclear whether the bill will make it to a full vote in the Senate this session. “We hope it will happen this session, that’s our goal,” says Marcus. “We are confident that it will pass the Senate when the time comes because it has very strong bi-partisan support.

“It’s hard to say how it will affect Philadelphia, but we hope that more licenses will be given out in the area.”

According to local pundits, LPFM and local radio are important not only because they provide communities with a voice but because they will help diversify media as a whole. Community radio offers people a chance to be themselves and not be forced to conform to societal standards.

“People in the margins do not usually make it in the mainstream media unless they change themselves to fit the mainstream. You do not have to do that here at WPEB, and that inspires me,” says Vania Gulston, the station’s programming co-coordinator.

And Marcus reminds that LPFM will help diversify media ownership. “When the original licenses were divided up in the ’30s there was still a lot of segregation, so they were given mostly to white men. It is still basically that way due to economic factors. The radio licenses are expensive.” According to legislation, in 2003 it cost over $2,500,000 to acquire a commercial radio station.

In the Local Community Radio Act Congress finds that:

“Minorities represent almost a third of our population. However, according to the Federal Communication Commission’s most recent Form 323 data on the race and gender of full power, commercial broadcast licensees, minorities own only 7 percent of all local television and radio stations. Women represent more than half of the population, but own only 6 percent of all local television and radio stations. LPFM stations, while not a solution to the overall inequalities in minority and female broadcast ownership, provide an additional opportunity for underrepresented communities to operate a station and provide local communities with a greater diversity of viewpoints and culture.”

Another problem with the current radio situation is media consolidation. “All of these stations sound the same to me these days, LPFM will allow for lots of different voices and lots of different programming,” says Doyle. LPFM radio can be whatever the community wants and needs it to be.

G-Town Radio, located in Germantown, found another solution to the radio problem: the Internet. They are an Internet-only radio station that broadcasts solely over the internet. Founder Jim Bear has never applied for an FCC license because of all of the complications involved in getting one.

“If the bill gets passed we might be interested,” said Bear. “It would still require a lot of money to get set up and you would have to follow FCC standards. But, we would be able to reach the community much easier.”

Bear believes that the Internet is a great starting point for people and organizations that want to start a radio station. “There are fewer barriers to entry,” he says. “The studio environment is identical for Internet and broadcast. It’s a great way to get practice and get your name out there.”

Bear thinks that finding an audience on the Internet first could make it easier to raise the money needed to start an FM station.

Also, Bear believes that since people can access internet radio from mobile devices that Internet radio may be the way of the future. “As the Internet matures and networks become better it will be just as easy for people to access Internet radio as it is to access traditional radio.”

Whether it’s by Internet or traditional means, the possibilities of providing more folks an alternative voice certainly seems promising.

“By offering something different, it messes with people’s imaginations,” Gulston says. “It lets them know that something else it possible.”

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