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Locally Grown Radio Takes Root

The FCC recently awarded radio licenses to hundreds of new community radio stations, including several in Central Oregon.


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Lisa Goetz-Bouknight and her husband Jon are abuzz.

They are professors at Central Oregon Community College, and a recent turn of events—really, a historical turn of events—has delivered a Federal Communications Commission (FCC)-sanctioned radio license to them.

With only so much bandwidth available, radio licenses are increasingly difficult to obtain, especially if you are not a major corporation with big bucks to spend. But in March, COCC was awarded a so-called Low-Powered FM station (LPFM), and with the prospect of a radio tower being placed on Awbrey Butte and media classes planned for upcoming academic years, COCC has a rare chance to launch an independent radio station run by, and for students—and to add more locally-grown news to the diet of Bend listeners.

We are talking at Bom Dia Coffee at the bottom of College Way. With his greying hair slightly askew, and his measured and referential responses to questions regarding the future of KXBC 102.5 FM, Jon is the vision of a college media professor.

Lisa matches perfectly, wearing a signature pair of Birkenstocks, and talking in fast-forward. "Us radio people are all a little loose in the mouth," she defends, before taking a drink of her coffee. "A lot of Hurricane Katrina news was carried forth because of LPFM reporters, LPFM people on the ground," Lisa says, articulating the importance that these small-scale community stations can play for a community.

A decade in the making, COCC applied for a LPFM back in 2000. At the time, the FCC had opened up this opportunity for nonprofits to edge onto local radio waves. The response was overwhelming, with some 12,000 applicants applying nationwide for the fewer than 1,000 available licenses. Locally, competition was equally keen: Six various organizations were in the running for a single license, eventually, the other applicants rescinded their applications, allowing KPOV to form. (In June, that community-run radio station will celebrate its 9th on-air birthday.) Since then, the Bouknights both have programmed for KPOV, but they have waited 10 years for another chance to apply for a FCC license, and to create a radio station specific to COCC—and, late last year, that opportunity finally rolled around again. And now, after being awarded a license in March, they hope to make as big as impact as KPOV has done over the past nine years.

"When KPOV went on the air, I noticed a lot of commercial stations started doing local music," Jon says. "It's an ecosystem of stations out there and that's where competition is good."

The Voice of a Place

Over the past 15 years, in no medium more than radio, corporate interests have quickly consolidated ownership and control of stations. In the mid-1990s, the nation's 10,000 radio stations were owned by some 5,000 entities. Historically, radio has represented its sense of place better than other forms of media—consider iconic shows like the Grand Ole Opry and A Prairie Home Companion, or even music itself, often labeled as the Seattle-, Minneapolis-, or British-scene. But by 2008, four companies—most notably, Clear Channel—had gobbled up more than half of the radio airwaves, and were increasingly elbowing out locally produced programming in favor of formulated playlists and nationally syndicated talk shows. Conservative talk show hosts Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh have a combined Clear Channel audience of more than 20 million listeners daily.

Yet, in a quixotic effort to counter this trend, community organizers and pirate radio station enthusiasts 10 years ago tried to convince the FCC to open up the airwaves to small, community-focused stations. Surprisingly, they won approval, and over the past several years roughly 800 hyper-local stations have popped up around the country—including 54 in Oregon, like a popular station in Woodburn, an agriculture community with a large Latino community, that broadcast in Spanish and has shows about migrant worker rights; and, in Bend, KPOV, which has since upgraded to a full-power station.

And now, that first wave of LPFM from the mid-2000s is about to be joined with a second more powerful wave—like that awarded to COCC. Two years ago, President Barack Obama signed into law the Local Community Radio Act, a far-reaching initiative that opened up the licensing process for another several hundred micro-broadcasting community stations around the country—and, this March, the FCC issued another batch of LPFM licenses, including six more in Central Oregon.

Only allowed to emit 100 watts each, LPFM stations are a lot like small-batch craft brewers; that is, these stations are pumping out an intensely local product. In a limited but powerful way, these stations offer a distinct alternative to the safe and familiar programming choices favored by Clear Channel.

"I see radio as an opportunity for communities to fight back against media consolidation," agrees Candace Clement, outreach manager for Free Press, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that lobbies in support of independent media. "It is not just symbolic."

Electronic Civil Disobedience

Not surprisingly, LPFM has its roots in the ideals, movements, and personalities of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement from the '60s—and perhaps is embodied in no one person more than Stephen Dunifer.

Sitting in a windowless warehouse in Emeryville, wearing faded blue jeans and an unbuttoned flannel shirt, his long gray hair pulled back tightly, Dunifer looks like he came directly from central casting for "aging hippie." Cluttered with motherboards and boxes of circuits, the bunker-like space is as unassuming as the back room of a Radio Shack store. Two college-age interns scurry in the background, assembling radio transmitters and antennas.

"It is electronic civil disobedience," he explains. "People should occupy FM radio," he added in a slow, careful cadence. "If we're going to do anything meaningful and long-term, we need to build alternative institutions."

Dunifer is so legendary among pirate radio enthusiasts that more than one radio manager interviewed for this story claimed that Dunifer inspired the movie Pump Up the Volume, the 1990 film starring Christian Slater as a ham radio operator who hijacks local radio frequencies to titillate his fellow high school students with brooding and horny soliloquies, and the only teenage romance ever to feature the FCC as the villain. In fact, Dunifer did not, but he has gone toe-to-toe with more FCC agents than any living radio operator. And his pirate radio station helped inspire a nationwide—if not global—movement toward micro-broadcasting, a trend that in recent years has matured into a steely alternative to the increasingly cookie-cutter—and corporately owned—stations that populate the airwaves—as much a David beating Goliath storyline as any Hollywood underdog script could produce.

Almost 20 years ago, Dunifer started broadcasting a Sunday evening pirate radio show from his house in the Berkeley Hills, talking about everything from the Gulf War to Earth First—stuff he felt that mainstream media did not care about. After agents came knocking—somewhat ironically, Dunifer explained, because they arrived just as he was talking on the radio about how free speech allows public nudity—he took the show mobile, hiking into the hills with a transmitter, a battery pack, and an antenna.

Unable to track down his pirate radio broadcasts, FCC agents took legal action and tried to stop him with an injunction in federal court. But when that injunction failed, Dunifer took advantage of the resulting legal ambiguity to set up a round-the-clock station in a flophouse that made WKRP seem like a monastery: "The point was to make a free-speech statement," Dunifer said.

Part performance art, part anarchy, the Free Radio Berkeley station aired shows from some four or five dozen people, including a steady stream of punks and what Dunifer calls "various shades of black and piercings," and shows by homeless men and women.Like many pioneering movements, Dunifer's local efforts were part of an uncoordinated golden era: Throughout the '90s, several other pirate radio broadcasters also used radio as a means for community organizing; most notably, a small-scale station, Black Liberation Radio, broadcasted—and continues to do so—news to housing projects in Springfield, Illinois. The station ran stories not being covered in the mainstream media, including how the AIDS epidemic was disproportionately affecting the black population. (Perhaps not coincidentally, a young, recent Harvard law school graduate, Barack Obama, started his career as a community organizer in those housing projects.)

A smattering of other pioneering micro-broadcasting stations also popped up across the country, including a Black Liberation Radio spin-off station in nearby Decatur that paid particular attention to a contentious union struggle against the machinery behemoth Caterpillar, and a station in southern Florida that championed the rights of local tomato pickers.

At the same time, pirate radio was taking on even more dramatic conflicts internationally. B-92 in the former Yugoslavia operated from unknown studios to chronicle the military conflict there (and continued to play music throughout the Bosnian War). A quasi-station known as Bush Radio organized anti-Apartheid forces by recording shows in Cape Town and distributing them on cassette tapes around South Africa.

But then, in 1996 (cue needle screeching across a record), President Bill Clinton signed into law the Telecommunication Act of 1996, effectively overwhelming the trend toward more locally grown radio stations. Most notably, the law reversed decades of ownership restrictions that prohibited a single corporation from holding multiple media stations in one market.

Norm Stockwell, a radio manager for community radio station WORT in Madison, Wisconsin, and a longtime advocate for LPFM, calls the Telecommunication Act a "massive giveaway" that set up a "land grab" by corporate interests. Clear Channel, in particular, was busy, increasing the stations it owned from 43 in 1996 to more than 1,000 five years later. "In terms of what we should be doing with media in this country," Stockwell said, "this was the exact opposite."

But then something completely unexpected happened, and it came from a surprising source: In 1997, William Kennard, who had been the FCC's general counsel, took over the agency and embarked on an international tour to learn about radio in other countries. He was particularly interested in pirate radio stations in South Africa and their role in that country's move toward democracy. "It is important to note," Stockwell said, "Kennard is African American and, in particular, the ownership [of radio stations] by African Americans had dropped off a cliff" after the 1996 Telecommunication Act.

When Kennard returned from overseas, he floated the radical idea of inviting community groups to start their own radio stations. It would be like ordering all the media moguls at Rockefeller Center in New York City to invite Occupy Wall Street activists to host their own shows from ham radio kits. Kennard proposed to issue 800 licenses for LPFM stations to nonprofit groups.

Not surprisingly, corporate interests railed against the idea, including heavy lobbying from National Public Radio, which complained that the new stations would clutter the airwaves, especially the lower frequencies on which most NPR stations exist.

Remarkably, the proposal survived largely intact and, during the first round of applications in the early 2000s, the FCC was overwhelmed with reportedly more than 12,000 applicants. Ultimately, 800 new licenses were issued, a glut of new voices on the air, like KPOV in Bend.

It was thought that this would be a one-and-only occurrence, but when Obama took office, he started to push forward the idea to open up the airwaves one more time—and, although the wheels of bureaucracy moved slowly, last year the FCC awarded a remarkable 1,190 new LPFM licenses, including 67 in Oregon (bringing the state's total to 121 LPFM stations), with six in Central Oregon.

Compared to reality TV shows that tend to profile Americans as middle-class suburban dwellers, micro-broadcasting stations around the country provide a platform for diverse demographics. A coastal town in New Hampshire, for example, broadcasts All Things Gay. And a station in Louisiana provides a mix of zydeco music and tips about starting small businesses. A station in Madras is one of four primarily Spanish-language stations statewide.

Also, perhaps an accurate mirror of "real" American life, half of the LPFM licenses issued during the first round were given to religious organizations and churches—certainly a reflection of the current political and social dichotomies that tend to split Americans between liberal and conservative. A second LPFM station in Madras is listed as "religious format" and the Desert Broadcasting in Burns is noted as a "Christian" station and 102.1 in Bend is the "Everlasting Gospel"—all LPFM licensees.

Airing Local Happenings

"We get to focus on the Sisters community and the happenings here," says Rick Olson, who is the acting program director for KZSO, a LPFM station in Sisters. Launched several years ago, the station predates the recent round of licensing, but it had fallen on lean times and was in danger of losing its license a year and half ago before being re-issued a license. Broadcasting from the Art Works building, the signal is not strong, but it covers the entire downtown area of the small hamlet and spills into the rural areas. The station is owned by the school district, but the mandate for the station is to go beyond school issues. It covers city council and county meetings, as well as pump around a consistent diet of popular music.

Olson points out that a station like KZSO is essential if there are local emergencies, like if summer forest fires threaten the town. One of the favorite tales local radio advocates like to parade out is an incident 12 years ago in a small North Dakota town. Clear Channel had recently consolidated all the region's local radio stations—and was essentially relaying national feeds with no local information—so when a train carrying toxic materials derailed, there was no one available at any of the radio stations to transmit the news that residents should evacuate while a toxic plume was brought under control. Especially in small towns, like Sisters, not covered by TV news and losing community newspapers, these radio stations are critical for announcing local information.

Also, fitting for a town that hosts a popular rodeo, KZSO also plays the old-time radio show, "The Lone Ranger."

"We want it to be listenable and of community interest," concludes Olson.

It may be a simple mission statement, but it is one that has been hard-fought over the past decade, and one that is bringing back local media in dozens of small towns across the country.


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