In a little-noticed action just after Thanksgiving, the Federal Communications Commission opened the door for hundreds and hundreds of community groups and nonprofit organization to start hyperlocal radio stations.
Until its November decision, the FCC had prohibited low-power FM stations in urban areas. That’s why there aren’t any in the Boston area. But let’s imagine a low-power FM station in Waltham, a city of 61,000.
Think of the potential for community journalism.
Waltham had a daily newspaper, the News Tribune, until 2010, when GateHouse Media cut the paper to twice-a-week publication. A year later, GateHouse turned the paper into a weekly. Two years ago Patch.com launched a news and features website in Waltham with a full-time staff of one: the editor.
GateHouse, headquartered in Fairport, New York, owns hundreds of newspapers in 21 different states. Patch, a division of AOL Inc., is headquartered in New York, New York and owns and runs more than 850 hyperlocal websites across the U.S.
A hyperlocal radio station in Waltham with a 100-watt transmitter in could reach every corner of the city. The station could use volunteers to cover School Committee and City Council meetings, the Mayors office, and all the other community events that used to be covered by the local newspapers.
In addition to news, the station could program call-in talk shows about local issues, shows featuring local music and musicians, shows about books or computers or food – all-community based. The station could even step into the space abandoned by public radio in Boston and air a daily jazz show, like WCRX in Columbus, Ohio.
Best of all, a low-power FM station in Waltham would be owned and operated by a organization or group from the community.
I’m just using Waltham as an example here — it could be any city or town.
There are already 12 low-power FM stations in Massachusetts, each with a broadcast range of about 3.5 miles — just enough to create a local community of listeners. Seven of the existing LPFM stations in the state are owned by churches, Nichols College in Dudley owns one, and the other four are community stations.
The community stations are a pleasure to listen to — quirky, opinionated, eclectic. They all have web streams. Check them out: WBCR in Great Barrington, WVVY in Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard, WXOJ in Northampton, and WMCB in Greenfield.
The Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based non-profit founded in 1998 to advocate for community radio stations, helps groups across the country looking to start community radio stations. When the FCC approved the new LPFM regulations, Pete Tridish of Prometheus waxed inspirational:
A town without a community radio station is like a town without a library. Many a small town dreamer – starting with a few friends and bake sale cash – has successfully launched a low power station, and built these tiny channels into vibrant town institutions that spotlight school board elections, breathe life into the local music scene, allow people to communicate in their native languages, and give youth an outlet to speak.
What would it take to be one of those small town dreamers who launches a low power station — besides a heck of a lot of work and some devoted collaborators? Prometheus estimates “a fairly minimal” start-up investment in the necessary equipment would be about $10,000. The blog Engineering Radio has done a breakdown of the cost of starting a hyperlocal radio station and sets the cost of a full set-up somewhat higher. You can check out prices for equipment at The LPFM Store.
I’m dreaming, you say. No one listens to the radio anymore. Wrong — more than 90 percent of adults listen to the radio.
At a time when so many community media outlets have become skeleton-staffed cells on a corporate spreadsheet in some distant finance department, we need to think creatively about community media.
The federal government, after a decade of stalling, is offering communities an opportunity to create new hyperlocal media. Who's going to step forward and start making community radio?
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