Low-Powered Community Radio Is Proving to Be a Powerful Voice

There's something more personal and grassroots about local radio. (Photo: zhu difeng/Shutterstock)

In the 1990 movie "Pump Up the Volume," Christian Slater plays a high-school student who uses pirated airwaves to create change in his community. Over his evening-only radio show, the teenager calls attention to the fact that his high school's administration is kicking out pregnant and lower-performing students to boost its reputation.

He successfully exposes the school's nefarious principal and gets her sacked — along the way, he deals with teen suicide, homophobia and parents who just don't understand. That's the memorable "whole world is longing for healing" clip below.

Fast-forward to 2018, where people are once again turning to community radio to inform, educate and — like Slater's character — spark change in their communities.

The difference is that they're doing it via legal, low-power FM stations (LPFMs), which are now broadcasting in small towns and urban areas across the United States. These micro-stations are picking up listeners and influence, but it's taken years of effort to get to this point.

Community radio vs. corporate giants

On Air sign with microphone
LPFMs are only allowed to operate at a maximum of 100 watts, which means the signal travels just 3 to 5 miles. Broadcasts must be commercial-free. (Photo: Forest Run/Shutterstock)

Back in 2000, grassroots organizations pressured the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for community access to the airwaves. But corporate broadcasters fought to restrict low-power radio, and after a decade of battles the Local Community Radio Act was finally signed into law in 2011 by President Barack Obama.

By late 2013, more than 2,800 groups had applied for licenses. Licenses have been issued since early 2014, and as of January 2018, 1,978 licenses have been issued, according to noncommercial radio advocacy site, Radio Survivor. Washington state, Oregon, and Florida have the highest number of stations per capita.

LPFMs are only allowed to operate at a maximum of 100 watts, which, depending on topography, generally means the signal can travel about 3 to 5 miles. Broadcasts must be commercial-free. To get a license, applicants must be nonprofit organizations, which includes schools, libraries, emergency services, tribal and religious groups, as well as anyone who wants to volunteer to create a station of their own. About a third (around 850) of the LPFMs are religiously affiliated, but the rest are what many of their licensees proudly call "alternative."

"The fact that we have gathered ourselves up by our bootstraps and created a community radio station is in direct response to the ownership concentration of large media companies," Rebecca Webb, founder of the Portland Radio Project, KSFL 99.1, told the New York Times. Her project, like many, broadcasts from a disused space — a couple of rooms over an old silent-movie theater. Others send signals from basement rooms, back porches and even mobile stations.

New stations are popping up with regularity. Seattle has no fewer than six community radio stations that have debuted recently, each with a number of contributors. (These are via licenses that were applied for in 2013; the application process for new licenses is closed.)

"It’s an unprecedented time in our radio history when we have so many stations getting on the air at the same time," Jennifer Waits, the social media director at Radio Survivor, told the New York Times.

What you'll hear

What can you hear on LPFMs? Well, plenty of them have streaming Internet radio broadcasts alongside their local broadcasts, so you can check them out that way. And find a full list of all the stations in the U.S. here. Some of them play religious programming, others talk shows, and some play music — especially music you won't hear on other stations. Like Zydeco, which is popular in Louisiana, where it's played on KOCZ.

And in at least one case, a local, low-power station has been a lifeline — after Hurricane Katrina, WQRZ in Mississippi broadcast crucial information about food, shelter and fresh water. You can see more about this in the video above via Prometheus Radio Project, another LPCR advocacy organization.

While writing this article, I listened to a show called "Hello Cruel World" from a KXRW out of Vancouver, Washington. They played folk and rock music, then there was a show called "Ghost Chapel," which (according to their website) features "A mixed bag of nutz with indie rock jams, shoegaze, folk, unreleased tracks, concert previews and festival favorites. We’ll bring you up high and light, and then down low and gloomy when you’re in the Ghost Chapel." I loved what I heard. If you remember the days of radio DJs with personality, this is much closer to that than the boring commercial DJs you hear on the bigger stations.

DIY community radio

If you're interested in not just listening to but helping a local radio show, you can check in with an existing LPFM station near you by checking the list above. Again, you can't start a new station, but that doesn't mean you can't participate. What would your radio show be about? Local sports, your favorite obscure music genre, a hobby or interest (sci-fi or comics perhaps) or just a philosophical ramble of sorts about life? It's up to you.

As Christian Slater's character says at the start of his radio career in "Pump Up the Volume," it doesn't have to be serious: "[I'm] here to remind you to eat your cereal with a fork, and do your homework in the dark."