Story/Photo By Ken Krayeske • 1:15 PM EST
Hartford City Councilors Matt Ritter and Luis Cotto have agreed to sponsor a resolution calling for Congress to pass the Local Community Radio Act. The resolution will be heard before the Planning and Economic Development Committee, chaired by Ritter, Tuesday, March 3 at 6 p.m.
I asked Councilors Ritter and Cotto to raise this resolution as a citizen. I hope to attend and testify. If I cannot, I would like to submit the following column as written testimony on the importance of Low Power FM radio stations.
Low Power FM is part of the radio spectrum reform movement. Right now, corporate interests dominate the Federal Communications Commission, and thus for-profit interests dominate the airwaves.
LPFM seeks to loosen FCC restrictions on airwave regulations so as to allow small community organizations to operate local radio stations. Imagine if Real Art Ways or the Artists Collective or OPP or the Hispanic Health Council could have a radio station.
What kinds of voices would be on the air, accessible to community members? How would this invigorate democratic discourse? I think it would be a positive step.
Right now, though, this is not possible because currently media corporations, most of them out-of-state, dominate the Hartford airwaves. And the problems of media conglomeration are easy to spot with the repetitive, homogenized programming we hear.
Clear Channel, the nation’s largest radio corporation, owns six stations in the Hartford media market: WKCI 101.3 FM, WHCN 105.9FM, WURH 104.1 FM, WKSS 95.7, WWYZ 92.5 FM and WPOP 1410AM.
CBS Radio, a subsidiary of Viacom, owns four stations: WTIC-96.5 FM, WZMX 93.7 FM, WRCH 100.5 FM and WTIC 1080AM.
Cox Radio, another one of the country’s largest media conglomerates, owns WPLR 99.1 FM and WEZN 99.9 FM. Cox also owns three other stations in Southwest Connecticut.
Cumulus Media, of Atlanta, Georgia, owns WEBE 107.9 FM. Nationally, WEBE owns 344 stations in 67 markets.
Two Connecticut companies compete with the national powerhouses. Buckley Broadcasting of Greenwich owns WDRC 102.9 FM. Marlin Broadcasting of West Hartford, owns WCCC 106.9 FM and WCCC 1290 AM.
While Marlin’s AM station bucks the trend as a classical music only station, CCC, while independently owned, competes in the commercial format represented by the rest of the stations.
The commercial station formats generates profit, and is focus group tested and targeted at various audience segments to churn out dollars. The same tired songs and endless national entertainment gossip pass for programming in any markets.
Because of this national ownership, what you hear in Denver is what you hear in Hartford is what you hear in Orlando is what you hear in Seattle. Community identity becomes lost in the march towards money.
As one of the top 30 largest media markets in the country, Hartford presents a profitable business opportunity for these national corporations, all of whom are members of the National Association of Broadcasters.
The NAB is an industry lobby that has helped shape policy towards radio broadcasting during the past 75 or so years. Even though the airwaves are publicly owned, and the FCC licenses the broadcasters to use them, corporate power has done its best to block access to the airwaves by community voices.
Broadcasters pay no rent except licensing fees. They have to air community programming as part of their license arrangement, but stations manage to air the community content at 7 a.m. on Sundays when most of their audience is fast asleep.
This is all by the NAB’s design. Every few years, their licenses come up for renewal, but the FCC rarely revokes a corporation’s broadcasting privileges.
Hartford has its share of local college and public stations, but, like everywhere else in the country, these community stations are relegated to the low or high ends of the dial.
Connecticut Public Broadcasting operates WNPR 90.5 FM, Trinity College sponsors WRTC 89.3 FM and the University of Hartford runs WWUH 91.3 FM. Central Connecticut State University houses WFCS 107.7.
The City of Hartford owns WQTQ 89.9 FM, but QTQ operates within a commercial format, as contemporary adult hits. The school system says it trains students for careers in mass media, but youth voice is not represented on the airwaves.
How would LPFM change this situation? Let’s think of the FM dial in terms of a transportation metaphor, and think of the radio dial as a line of parking spaces in a parking lot. One parking spot is a frequency, and that is generally good for one car.
Let’s say that the stations like WWUH and WRTC are cars, and they occupy only one space in the lot, or one frequency on the dial. They utilize hundreds of watts to transmit their signal out into the radio ether.
Think of the powerful corporate-owned stations like WHCN, WPLR, and even WCCC or WNPR as being 18 wheelers, and they park across the spectrum, where seven or eight cars might fit. They transmit their signals with tens of thousands of watts and multiple repeaters to strengthen the signal over a long range.
Furthermore, the corporations who own these stations demand that the FCC not license the frequencies adjacent to them to prevent what is known as signal creep or signal bleed.
Signal creep is what happens when two stations close on the dial bump into each other. You hear signal creep when you travel from one market to another and hear stations overlap.
For those who have iPods, the Belkin-style radio transmitters that you can purchase to play your iPod on your car radio are micro-FM, and the signal is not strong enough to overpower bigger FM signals, which is why you have to find space at the low end of the dial to use them.
Think of LPFM as a bicycle. While a transmitter and equipment runs anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000, it is inexpensive to maintain like a bicycle, and it has the range of a bicycle, too. LPFM transmitters are under 100 watts, broadcast a few miles and don’t interfere with bigger stations on the dial in any significant way.
The best part is that LPFM stations can be used by churches, schools, ethnic groups and other community voices. What would a Real Art Ways radio station sound like? Avant-grade music and interesting conversation with writers and artists?
To hear RAW Radio, you would have to move into Parkville, or tune in online, but it might be a feature that would make Parkville more attractive as a hip place to be.
What programs would a Knox Parks Radio station feature? Tips for community gardeners? Planting schedules? Reports from the Green Team? Music to pull your weeds by and tunes to make your tomatoes grow?
Or suppose that the West Indian Foundation wanted to start a station. What kind of cooking shows could they have?
What kinds of music could students at the Artists Collective put on the air on a small radio station? And what kind of information could the Hispanic Health Council broadcast into Frog Hollow?
By opening up the FM dial, Congress and the FCC could foster the creation of richer and more interesting and more vibrant community conversations. Almost anyone could be a deejay or talk show host.
And by passing this resolution, the city of Hartford can join LPFM advocates like President Bill Clinton, Senator John McCain. The goal is to push Congress to pass the Local Community Radio Act and open up the radio airwaves to community groups, for the betterment of the community.