Belltown. Rainier Valley. The Central District.
The distinct character and issues of these neighborhoods make Seattle, a middle-sized city that punches above its weight in regional and national politics. Try as they might, it’s rare for any mainstream news outlet to accurately reflect these distinct communities.
A group of journalists, media junkies and artists mean to do so, and their eyes are trained on the sky.
Seattle is poised to host to seven low-powered FM radio stations, LPFMs for short, many of which release content in a dizzying array of programs in multiple languages that speak directly to the nooks and crannies of the city in which they operate.
LPFM broadcasts use the same amount of power as a 100-watt light bulb, which means their reach extends between three and seven miles.
Or it should. Right now, only a few of the stations — three out of 15 in the Puget Sound region — have made the leap from streaming their content on the internet to taking their rightful place on the radio dial due to a mix of government regulation, physical limitations and money.
While the stations have licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), they are struggling to get money and city permits to build the antennas they need to broadcast across the air.
“It’s the first and only time that we will have basically legalized pirate radio in cities, and no city is prepared for it,” said Sabrina Roach, the local authority on the matter.
Roach a “doer” — her actual title — for Brown Paper Tickets, an event ticketing firm with a penchant for social justice and public causes. Her current work focuses on the LPFM movement and the provision of local broadband internet. This year marks a critical time for several of the groups she’s helping because their time is quickly running out.
The government opened up the chance to operate a legal LPFM station in 2010. Congress voted across party lines (imagine that) to allow the FCC to grant licenses to nonprofit outlets to operate radio stations.
Groups were allowed to apply for licenses in 2013, which were then allotted on a rolling basis. Once in hand, they had 18 months to get their radio antenna operating before the license expired, unless they applied for a one-time-only extension.
However, most organizations are volunteer run and cash-strapped. They found themselves struggling to navigate many requirements through local governments that had no experience with this work.
That’s in part because the government has never allowed LPFMs in an urban setting before; existing regulations don’t account for that and are slow to change.
LPFMs fall under the same regulatory regime as other “minor communication” antennas. That means that if they exceed a certain height limitation, they require special permission from local government.
“Our local land use code allows for LPFM antennae today, but requires a similar public permit process as required for cell phone or wireless providers,” said Bryan Stevens, a spokesperson for the Seattle Department of Construction and Inspections. “Any ‘minor communication’ antenna located either above the height limit or in a residential zone requires a Conditional Use permit to evaluate the proposed location. We’re in the process of discussing more flexibility for local LPFM antennae, but have not yet settled on the best path forward for the licensees.”
The mayor’s office has been working on that with Roach for over a year, she said. Until they find a solution, the city has to deal with LPFMs on a case-by-case basis. The delay could be problematic for some organizations whose FCC permits expire in summer and winter of this year.
The University of Washington’s Bothell campus applied for and received a license, but the university announced in January that it would pass on the chance to convert its online radio program, known as UWave into an LPFM station. That’s six months before the federal deadline.
Alumna Amani Sawari railed against the decision on her blog, saying that the situation was “symbolic of the way university administrators make decisions against the will and benefit of the students without any student input.”
The administration says that the students signed an agreement with the organization, which applied for the permits on their behalf. The agreement prescribed a specific timeline that they were not able to meet.
“We were getting closer to seeing the implementation date was six months away. No way that they were going to get accomplished in that little time,” said Kelly Snyder, assistant vice chancellor of government and community relations for the campus.
The station will continue to operate online, Snyder said.
Other stations just need to find the space.
Hollow Earth radio has been operational for 11 years, lifting up local music, arts and public affairs to the Central District. The station received its permit from the FCC and has been trying to find a building on which it can mount its antenna.
“People are willing to work with us, but it’s in a valley,” said Sam Parker, a DJ with the station. “It really limits our range in terms of who we’re able to reach.”
But roadblocks don’t stop at the physical. Hollow Earth has had to grapple with its own identity while converting to a physical station in a neighborhood that’s undergoing rapid gentrification.
“We’re an online station and we have buy-in from a lot of different groups that aren’t simply limited to the Central District,” Parker said. “We’re really acknowledging the transformation and trying to have a forum where we acknowledge our role as gentrifiers, and what role media can play to counter that.”
Despite the challenges and loss of many LPFM permits won during the brief open window, the media landscape in Seattle will look a lot different if LPFMs start broadcasting. Some worry that it will be too different to escape without challenge from the federal government.
A station located in the University District has its permits and expects to get on the air by spring or summer of 2017. Unlike Hollow Earth, KODX’s content focuses strongly on local political and social justice issues, with programming including live discussions and pre-taped work from groups working on needle exchange and homelessness issues.
Mike McCormick, longtime radio journalist and member of KODX, is concerned about how the current administration might treat new LPFMs.
Still, there’s opportunity, McCormick said.
“I see LPFMs as coming in at the perfect time in history when local communities are going to be pulling together more than ever just to survive in this climate. It’s a vital part of the infrastructure,” he said.