(Photo by Kristi Petrillo)
Last Sunday, in the Hive76 hackerspace located within the bowels of the old Bok Technical School building in South Philadelphia, volunteers and organizers were cleaning and putting the finishing touches on soundboards and other gear that will be integral to launching a community radio station, 106.5 WPPM, which stands for “People-Powered Media.”
It’s one of a handful of Philadelphia “low-power FM” (LPFM) radio stations, also known as community radio stations, that won a permit to operate from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last year. Public access media nonprofit PhillyCAM, which applied for the WPPM permit, is helping to launch the station and will host it in its Old City headquarters but WPPM will do its own fundraising.
A result of a decade-long organizing effort that can be traced back to a West Philadelphia pirate radio station, the FCC opened up a window for organizations to apply for LPFM tower construction permits in 2014. Other approved stations include Germantown’s G-town Radio, as well as stations run by Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation and the Greater Philadelphia Asian Cultural Center, both in North Philadelphia. Previously, Philadelphia only had one community radio station, WPEB 88.1.
Why does this matter? Because corporations have a monopoly on the airwaves, meaning they get to decide what kinds of media and voices are showcased. Community radio stations, with their locally-focused programming, aim to empower local voices and are powerful because of their reach: WPPM will cover about 500,000 Philadelphians and that’s not including drivers just passing through town, said PhillyCAM executive director Gretjen Clausing.
But it’s not easy to set up a radio station. You need money, technical know-how and, in WPPM’s case, the persistence to land the radio call sign you want. Here’s a look at the group’s journey so far.
Clausing told Technical.ly that the station must be up and running no later than July 12 so that the FCC can verify that the station is broadcasting local programming and meeting other standards. Some time after that probationary period, the FCC will formally approve 106.5 WPPM’s license.
PhillyCAM, which draws its funding from Comcast franchise fees and saw a drop in funding with the city’s new franchise agreement, has to do its own fundraising as it moves forward to run the station. So far, it has raised $10,000 from donors, PhillyCAM consultant Vanessa Maria Graber told our sister site Generocity, but hopes to raise $20,000 more for equipment through a crowdfunding campaign. Station organizers are currently fundraising on IndieGoGo-affiliated Generosity and have raised nearly $2,000 through the campaign so far. They’ll keep working to fundraise until they raise the necessary amount, according to the Generocity report.
The team has received some donations to help with the launch, including three soundboards, and has also received help from the hackers at Hive76. Hive76 has assisted the station’s organizers by providing a wide spectrum of electronic testing tools, as well as actual space to refurbish the donated soundboards and related equipment, said Ed Cummings, also known as hacker bernieS, who’s helping to launch the station.
Hive76 has been “a huge asset to the station,” Cummings said.
Cummings helped found PhillyCAM and has been a local telecommunications activist since 1997 when he and others launched a pirate radio effort in West Philly called Radio Mutiny that, after getting shut down by the FCC, began lobbying the FCC to open up a limited amount of LPFM local radio stations. The effort grew into the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philly-based community radio advocacy group that eventually found success when the Obama administration signed into law the Local Community Radio Act in 2011.
Cummings said he was persistent in securing the station’s call sign, WPPM. The acronym was originally used by a U.S. Coast Guard ship to transmit information about “rum runners” during Prohibition, before it was decommissioned in 1948. After numerous calls to nearly a dozen people both in and out of the federal government, he was finally able to secure the letters.
While organizers conservatively estimate that upwards of 500,000 residents will be reached by the station’s signal, the exact reach is difficult to determine.
“There’s a lot of variations,” according to Cummings. “We have a wall of steel in Center City that may interfere or prevent the signal from reaching West Philly as much as we’d like. But we’ll see.”
The station will also stream online and plans to archive all shows. They’re confident that residents in the River Wards, South Philly and even Camden will be able to listen. They also hope to train newcomers to the world of broadcasting and sound production, much like PhillyCAM does with video and other media production.
Station programming will include a news magazine show set to air every Sunday evening, says PhillyCAM member Lisa Barnes, who will produce and host the hour-long show. Other programs will showcase local music, as well as “Off the Hook,” a show co-hosted by Cummings that will focus on telecommunications issues and will be simulcast from WBAI-FM in New York City.