For Listeners Like You 

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Chris Maxwell is a difficult man to reach these days.

For 13 years the local radio activist struggled, with hundreds of others, to start low-power WRIR (Richmond Indie Radio, 93.7 FM), which finally launched in 2005. But he's since left the station and is now somewhere in the Deep South on a consulting mission for Pacifica Radio, a network of independent stations. He's in a rural, bad cell-phone-reception kind of place while he attempts to help small community groups apply for a rare and important license.

For the first time in seven years, the Federal Communications Commission is preparing to open slots on the dial nationwide. The only available signals are on the low end -- 88.1 to 91.9 MHz. Locally, the 90.7 frequency will open, according to Public Radio Capital, which mapped the available signals across the United States.

This local signal does not penetrate Richmond proper; it hits Church Hill, then heads east toward Varina. Unlike WRIR, it will be a full-power license (100 to 100,000 watts), and unlike a commercial station such as 102.1 FM, it's a position reserved for educational or noncommercial groups. The FCC is taking applications Oct. 12-19.

The opportunity has not been widely covered by news media, but certain groups have been preparing to grab signals for more than a year. "It's real cloak-and-dagger stuff," Maxwell says. "Nobody is going to talk until after the filing, because lawyers and engineers have told them not to so they don't jeopardize their application."

Maxwell is not even authorized to say where he is. His work is part of a massive national effort by a coalition of radio activists that includes Pacifica, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and the United Church of Christ, among others, all of whom seek to help spread community radio to the masses.

In the Richmond area there will be major competition, with organizations around Virginia and elsewhere going after the same highly coveted signal. Among those rumored to be interested are Virginia Commonwealth University (its WVCW is Internet-only) and Virginia Tech, which may be seeking to broadcast its NPR station, WVTF. But nobody wants to talk — this is big business, after all.

"There are ways for engineers to finesse the signal so it reaches Richmond," says Greg Weatherford, director of student media for VCU. "So there are a number of groups interested — it's either this or nothing."

How do you assess the value of a radio signal? By using a multiplier of the potential listeners at any given time. Public Radio Capital estimates that a finished full-power station is worth $3.16 per potential listener; multiply that by several million listeners and you see where it's going. Getting a full-power license is like hitting the jackpot.

But there's a significance greater than money. On a national level, this could be the last time small community groups get a chance at a full-power station anywhere, because most of the dial has been swallowed by corporations — big satellite broadcasters such as Clear Channel, and those that qualify for noncommercial status because they are religious broadcasters, such as the Educational Media Foundation, American Family Association and Radio Assist Ministry.

The Center for Rural Strategies published a national study two years ago reporting that there were roughly 200 to 300 community stations on air, while there were more than 2,000 Christian stations controlling around 25 percent of the spectrum.

Maxwell says he believes that religious groups who want to regulate the Internet, cable, satellite radio and television are basically aiming "for every single avenue of dissent, consent or discussion available."

Many radio activists share his concern and wish the public knew more.

"After this, the only way to get a noncommercial radio station will be to buy one," says Libby Reinish, full-power coordinator for the Prometheus Radio Project in Philadelphia. "The big networks will scoop up everything not applied for."

WRIR looked into the idea, but decided against applying for the full-power license. "As far as our mission goes, that wouldn't work for us, because it doesn't saturate Richmond," says Liz Humes, national programming manager at WRIR and co-chair of its FCC committee.

But Humes says she has been told that other groups are applying for frequencies in the outlying areas of the city to reach some 900,000 people regionally — although she's uncertain of those statistics.

Considering that the FCC will be flooded with applications, the awarding of a winner could take years to play out. After the winner is announced, there is a 30-day period in which anyone can challenge on the grounds that something was wrong with the application.

Application costs easily run more than $6,000 with engineering and legal fees (engineering studies must be completed to show that the signal will not bleed into established stations). Prometheus estimates that it costs anywhere from $25,000 to $200,000 to get a station up and running (by contrast, low-power WRIR cost about $15,000).

The application process can be "intimidating" for small nonprofits, Reinish says, but the FCC has made improvements for the little guy. It will be using a point system that favors locally based stations, technical superiority (or area coverage) and "diversity," meaning the group that owns fewer area radio stations receives more points.

Donald E. Wildmon, founder and chairman of the America Family Association, has already tried to sue the FCC over the point system, calling it "anti-Christian."

"The way this is set up, government-funded stations like NPR will always win," says Pat Vaughn, legal counsel for AFA. "Groups like PBS that provide grants for radio and television will not provide any funding for entities that [broadcast religious material] … what this really does is create government-funded radio."

Vaughn says his particular group reaches about 5 percent of the national population while NPR reaches 97 percent, according to its own site. Vaughn says church groups like AFA are looked at as corporate giants because they use nationwide networks (instead of tax money) to produce national programming and send it out to small church stations who cannot sustain their own programming 24-hours a day.

"This is not God versus Satan, this is mega groups versus local groups," notes Maxwell. "I really hope whoever is most inclusive gets [the local signal]."

Another issue facing community groups is a set of restrictions imposed in 2000 to protect large broadcast signals from interference by low-power stations. It basically means there's not as much room at the table for the little guys, who don't get on the air if their signals bleed into those of bigger stations. But recently, the Local Community Radio Act of 2007 (or Senate Bill 1675) has been introduced, which could open up more space.

"Low power is so much more realistic [than the FCC's full-power window] for a lot of small community groups," Reinish says. "This could mean thousands more community stations, including in big cities, if this legislation is passed."

If you think low power isn't that important, consider the case of the Gulf Coast man whose low-power station was the only one left operating in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, allowing him to save hundreds of lives (and becoming the Federal Emergency Management Agency's broadcast hub).

Still, low-power stations have secondary status, which means they occasionally get bumped off the dial, which only raises the importance of the full-power licensing window.

"This could be a serious tipping point," Maxwell says. He adds that several of the states he's been working in are swing vote districts: "If all the groups that the radical right have abused for decades can suddenly network and frame issues in their voices and their way, the right will not be able to run roughshod over United States electoral politics … then you've changed the world."

Once the application deadline passes, the players will be willing to show themselves. Then we'll know better who might soon be broadcasting their ideas on 90.7 FM. S

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