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The Next Generation Of Local, Low-Power FM Stations Expands In Urban Areas


Radio has gotten bigger and bigger over the last few years. Back in 1996, a change in the law allowed a few large media giants to buy up hundreds of radio stations. Local shows were replaced with nationally syndicated programs. In an effort to increase local programming, The Federal Communications Commission introduced low power FM back in 2000, mostly in rural areas. Now the FCC has expanded that program to urban markets. Allyson McCabe reports.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: If you tune into WQRZ-LP in Hancock County, Miss., you might hear letters from the mailbag, notices about lost pets or the daily weather report.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It's 8:02. It's 86 degrees outside and it feels like 95. Yuck.

BRICE PHILLIPS: We provide the public a service - the most local information you can get.

MCCABE: So says WQRZ-LP's founder, Brice Phillips. Stations like his were created in response to the increasing consolidation of the radio industry, says Peter Doyle, head of the FCC's audio division.

PETER DOYLE: There was a loss of localism, a homogenization in radio broadcasting. And a low-powered FM service might provide a counterbalance that could serve niche and underserved communities.

MCCABE: These stations were initially called microradio. And like WQRZ, they were authorized to operate at up to 100 watts.

DOYLE: To give you a sense of contrast, our most powerful FM stations are authorized to operate with 100,000 watts.

MCCABE: Nevertheless, those big stations and NPR were concerned about signal interference from the LPFMs, so they were mostly restricted to rural areas where the dial was less crowded. After conducting studies, the FCC decided to expand their reach six years ago to urban communities. The commission received close to 3,000 applications. It approved construction permits for more than 1,900 new stations, many in cities, where Doyle says their potential reach is considerable.

DOYLE: In major markets, low power stations have the opportunity to serve tens or hundreds of thousands of people.

MCCABE: As with the first wave, new LPFMs this must be a local, non-profit and non-commercial. Some plan to offer faith-based programming, others educational or community affair shows. And some will be geared towards local music and arts.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And welcome to another installment of "Transient Descent" here on ARTxFM Louisville.

MCCABE: ARTxFM launched in 2012 as an experimental pop-up station at a Louisville, Ky. arts festival. Then it went online. This year, the station went on air as WXOX-LP on Valentine's Day, and hundreds came out to its studio to celebrate.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We are officially on the Dallas domains, and you guys are here to celebrate it with us. Thank you so much.

MCCABE: But getting on air has been more than a collective labor of love. WXOX's founder, Sharon Scott, say it's also required significant financial investment.

SHARON SCOTT: I think a lot of people have this idea, like, you apply for a license and you get a license and then you just flip the switch and you're on air. And that is absolutely (laughter) not the case. I wish that it was. But there are so many different expenses, you know, from rent to utilities, music licensing fees, legal fees, you know, insurance.

MCCABE: Community radio activists like to say that the equipment needed to get a new LPFM up and running often costs less than $10,000, but costs are far greater in major markets, even for established internet stations like the Chicago Independent Radio Project, which goes by the acronym CHIRP.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Chirpradio.org. All-local music there, of course, because this is the local six-pack.

MCCABE: CHIRP has been live-streaming a mix of local and independent music since 2010 thanks to nearly 250 volunteers. But founder Shawn Campbell says it's still struggling to get on the air.

SHAWN CAMPBELL: Because there had never been low power FMs built in big cities before, we probably underestimated some of the costs. Our costs ultimately will be close to $100,000 to set this up.

MCCABE: From the time they're granted construction permits, LPFMs have 18 months to get on the air, says the FCC's Peter Doyle.

DOYLE: About 775 of these have already completed construction, but our experience has been not all stations make the finish line.

MCCABE: So far, more than 100 have surrendered those permits and more than 500 have requested extensions. Nevertheless, Doyle says revitalizing the public airwaves remains a high priority even in the digital age.

DOYLE: There is a special place for radio in the media ecosystem, and that's a different place than internet radio.

MCCABE: A good example of that place is back in Hancock County, Miss. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall, tiny WQRZ was the area's only local 24-hour emergency information provider, says the station's founder, Brice Phillips.

PHILLIPS: As I learned since 2005, if you have infrastructure damage, there's no cellphones. There might not be any phone lines or the internet. But hey, a 1.5-volt battery and an FM radio, and you have the local emergency information you need. low power FM covers the whole gap.

MCCABE: And with luck, money and a lot of work, it'll be there to do the same for urban communities. For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allyson McCabe