Local radio is a contradiction in terms in Tacoma and much of Pierce County.
Once, the area was home base to a dozen or so stations, covering formats from Top 40 to standards, from sports to talk. But for a variety of reasons — economic, regulatory, technological — that’s no longer true. The market dominance of Seattle and the loosening of requirements that stations licensed in a city have primary studios there caused an exodus of local stations north. Being in the shadow of Seattle means Tacoma lacks what smaller markets such as Spokane, Yakima and the Tri-Cities have — a full array of local radio and TV stations.
That’s not going to change. But one small initiative by the Federal Communications Commission — urged on by advocates for locally produced community radio — could have a small impact.
Called Low Power FM, the idea is to invite community nonprofits to apply for FM frequencies in between those of the big broadcasters. If signals are weak enough — no more than 100 watts from towers no taller than 98 feet — programming can be heard in a 3- to 5-mile radius but not interfere with existing channels.
When the idea began in 2000, restrictions were such that there were no available LPFM channels available in Pierce or South King County. Only a handful were allowed in the state, the closest in Olympia, that broadcast by and for progressive-to-radical organizations. Lobbying by big commercial broadcasters, as well as NPR, essentially halted the licensing of new channels.
Congress reauthorized the program in the Local Community Radio Act, and the FCC has invited nonprofits to apply for hundreds of channels around the country. Unlike in 2000, many of those channels are in urban areas.
“It’s really hard to fathom,” said Sabrina Roach, who has been working to spread the word about the program. “It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Roach works for Brown Paper Tickets, a “not-just-for-profit” company that provides online ticketing for concerts, theater and other performances. Roach is among the people hired as “doers,” and her project is to advocate for public interest and community media.
It is relatively cheap to set up a LPFM channel. Prometheus Radio Project is a Philadelphia-based group that advocates for community radio as a counterforce to the dominance of big radio and TV corporations. It estimates engineering studies cost between $500 and $3,000, startup equipment runs around $15,000, and annual operating expenses are in the $10,000 range if a channel is staffed with volunteers.
Among the Puget Sound-area groups Roach has been advising is Tacoma’s DASH Center for the Arts. Founded in 2003 by Candi Hall and located on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, DASH uses performing arts instruction as a way to counteract gang and other negative influences on kids.
Scooter Spencer is the “Art of Hip-Hop” program director and has a background in radio. Spencer said he remembers how important radio was when he was growing up in Philadelphia.
“Radio was the informant for the street,” Spencer said. “It was where kids got their news, where they heard new music, how they found out what was happening Friday night.
“Now radio doesn’t do that,” he said. Spencer also thinks electronic media around Puget Sound don’t ignore Tacoma as much as give negative impressions to listeners.
When he first heard about LPFM, he thought a truly local station based at DASH could combine education for his students and community service.
“I’d like to make it really about Tacoma,” Spencer said. “I want to make it fun. I want to make it like it was when I was growing up.”
I became worried after making a layman’s run through some of the online channel locator sites (mylpfm.com). The potentially available channels in Tacoma conflict with existing channels. While the conflicts are relatively small — covering a handful of homes and businesses — FCC rules ban any interference.
Gary Loehrs, an FCC engineer, gave some hope, however. He said the agency believes there are frequencies available in the Seattle-Tacoma market and that there are ways to overcome conflicts that show up in locator apps, such as manipulating tower heights or co-locating transmitters with the channel posing the conflict.
“You don’t know until you do the engineering work,” Loehrs said.
Hopefully a broadcast engineer can build a case for setting aside a small space on the public’s spectrum for a truly local LPFM channel for both DASH and Tacoma.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ thenewstribune.com @CallaghanPeter