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Free Radio from Itself

Will low-powered FM attain a high-powered impact?

by Joe Tarr

My older brother used to listen to one of those renegade album-oriented rock stations in the mid- to late-'70s. I didn't know much about music at the time but listened to plenty top-40 radio, singing along with Paul McCartney and Wings, Supertramp, Billy Joel, Peter Frampton.

This station my brother listened to was an oddity. There were no commercials, and the music was weird. I remember hearing Frank Zappa sing about dental floss, David Bromberg beg a judge to send him to the 'lectric chair, and some obscure group use that F-word I'm not allowed to write here. The DJs weren't smooth-talking slicksters but real people you got the feeling were actually talking to you.

In retrospect, I doubt this station would be my first choice to listen to today, but it did have some things lacking at almost every station now on the air—uniqueness, a sense of adventure and a local voice.

Most of what you hear today is bland, formatted programming, with scant local news, music or personality.

But there may be some real alternatives in the works. You might even get a chance to start your own radio show.

The Federal Communications Commission is in the process of licensing 1,000 low-powered FM community stations across the country.

Unlike print media, radio and television airwaves technically belong to the public. The FCC regulates how these frequencies are used and has traditionally distributed most of them to commercial enterprises, whose main concern is to make money, not educate or even entertain the public.

Pete Tridish, of the community radio advocacy group, Prometheus, says that "there's no law of physics that says Disney can have 100 stations and your local PTA can't have any. It's entirely a law of capital." The First Amendment, he adds, "isn't really about my ability to talk to you—it's about citizens being able to participate in public discourse."

After losing a court battle with the pirate radio stations it was trying to the run off the air, the FCC is now allowing low-wattage radio stations. The frequencies are open only to non-commercial entities for educational purposes. Broadcasting at 100 watts, the stations will be heard in about a 10-mile radius from the transmitter. The FCC expects to accept applications for the Tennessee region in February.

At least two efforts are in the works in Knoxville to get one of the licenses (more than one could be awarded). The Knoxville Community Radio Project is building a coalition of north and east Knoxville community groups for a station that would give a voice to minority and marginalized people. Sexist or racist programming would be prohibited, but no group would be able to control content, says member Samantha Pearson.

Katuah Earth First! is spearheading a Fort Sanders-based station with similar goals also involving various community groups, says Chris Irwin, who was involved with Radio Free Knoxville—a pirate station that operated a few years ago. The Earth First group is now looking for DJs to host more-or-less anything-goes music shows. "We'll be riding the coattails of the music community. They're the ones who are there 24 hours a day," Irwin says.

The arrival of real community stations couldn't happen at a better time. It's damn near impossible to find local news on the radio anymore, or a music station that doesn't fit into a handful of rigid formats. In any city (or, market, as they've become known), you can find the same predictable stations—classic rock, alternative, oldies, top 40, country and talk radio, with perhaps a smooth jazz or urban contemporary station. Some public radio stations have filled in the gaps by offering an eclectic mix of locally produced shows. But many others—including the Knoxville's WUOT—have become more like their commercial counterparts, going after increasingly narrow niches.

Low-powered community stations hold out more than just the promise of an alternative. By offering something inventive and unique, these tiny stations could force the broadcasting giants to pay attention once again to their communities, treating their audiences like people instead of consumers to be packaged for advertisers.

For info about applying for a community radio license, see the FCC's website To get involved with the Knoxville Community Radio Project, call 540-8778 or email [email protected]. To join the Katuah Earth First!-led effort call Mary Capps at 546-3819 or join an email discussion group by sending an email to: [email protected].

September 14, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 37
© 2000 Metro Pulse