Thirteen students gathered inside a study room filled with audio equipment on a recent Friday afternoon to discuss one topic: community radio.
The students — departmental leaders of an official student-run radio club, “UWave” at the University of Washington, Bothell — were preparing to launch online streaming content. They were also preparing for a long-term goal: obtaining the license to a low-power FM station (LPFM).
The group is among several community organizations looking to seize upon an upcoming opportunity to take to the airwaves.
According to Seattle’s Citizens’ Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board (CTTAB), at least eight open LPFM slots have been made available in the Greater Seattle area as part of the Local Community Radio Act passed by Congress in 2010.
The act is an effort to make radio accessible to nonprofit groups and the public. Compared with public radio stations, LPFM stations are able to operate at 100 watts or less, reaching a radius of 3-10 miles. The two also differ in content in that LPFM stations are required to be noncommercial, available only to nonprofit organizations, schools, churches, local governments and community groups.
The next LPFM filing window is projected to be in mid-October.
Because of its low-cost and localized reach, community leaders encouraged local nonprofit organizations and community media organizations to utilize LPFM as a tool to expand their voices.
“It’s exciting because the LPFM gives another outlet for getting diverse and local voice onto the radio spectrum,” said David Keyes, the Community Technology Program Manager for the City of Seattle Department of Information Technology.
In the midst of a vibrant public radio station scene, Keyes is optimistic that the LPFM will complement and give more space for localized programming, especially for communities that would broadcast in different languages.
“For [LPFM stations] to be successful, it will
[require] marketing and creating a sense of community around the programs and stations,” said Keyes.
Narrowcasting is a method that Keyes suggested organizations interested in LPFM implement. The idea is to focus on being meaningful to a smaller group.
“I can have a show about API [Asian Pacific Islander] teens or a show for African-American elders,” said Keyes, “So you can have targeted programs but build a dedicated audience to that.”
While the start-up cost is low, a great amount of work is required to maintain a successful LPFM stations.
One way to lessen the risks of failure, according to Keyes, is partnerships. In order to make LPFM stations more feasible and sustainable, partnership between community and organizations will be key.
“We’d probably rather have [fewer] stations that survive, than more stations that fail,” said Keyes.
For example: During the course of organizing UWave, students reached out to other school clubs in UW Bothell with ideas to build community and, most importantly, give a voice and a sense of identity to faculty, students and community organizations in the Bothell area.
Organizations should think of LPFM and social media as complementary, said UWaves faculty advisor Amonshaun Toft: “There is a possibility of a hybrid model that utilizes both the tools of old-fashioned radio and modern digital media.”
Society often glorifies digital technologies, but in reality there is technological gap, Toft said.
People who are most disadvantaged economically are people who are much less likely to have access to technology and the skills to use that technology to communicate to the public, he said.
Community radio can be a way to break that class barrier, opening access to creative and interactive programming for the general public.
“Most people don’t know what community radio is,” said Toft. “But once people understand that it’s this whole other genre where they can have a voice, it becomes easier for them to be like, ‘Oh, I get it. So, my immigrant rights organization can talk to their constituents in the language that they speak or for the city of Bothell to talk about their after-school program.’ There really [are] a lot of opportunities.”