Low-power blues

New community radio stations finally power up around Sacramento

Bill Boyer worked for four years to bring a low-power FM radio station to Sacramento.

Bill Boyer worked for four years to bring a low-power FM radio station to Sacramento.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Bill Boyer looked as though he might levitate when he shouted along with the CD track he’d just cued up.

“Bid ’em in. Bid ’em in!” It was a recreation of an actual slave-auctioneer’s call, recorded by black poet and singer Oscar Brown Jr. in 1960:

She’s full up front and ample behind.
Take a look at her teeth if you’ve got a mind.
Bid ’em in. Get ’em in.

As Boyer yelled the line, he scrunched up his face in an expression that was part fierce anger and part enjoyment at the look of surprise and consternation on the face of his guest, the reporter.

“That’s what I’m going to use to start the show,” Boyer explained, cueing up another track, one of his favorite versions of what he calls the “black national anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

These two tracks are just a small sampling of what Boyer hopes to hear soon on a new low-power community radio station that he has worked for four years to create.

“It’s going to be real black radio,” he said. “None of this R. Kelly stuff. But James Brown and gospel music and real community news and politics.”

The station is KDEE-LP, at 97.7 FM. When it goes on the air—if it goes on the air—in October, it will be the first in Sacramento of a new class of 100-watt community radio stations authorized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) more than four years ago.

Another low-power station, KDRT, 101.5 FM, is scheduled to go on the air in Davis in September. Both are scrambling to get their stations constructed and on the air before their respective deadlines this fall.

Both are the result of four years of work by local media activists, often frustrated by the changing rules of low-power radio, and the politics of media ownership.

As each station attempts to power up, those politics are making headlines again. On July 21, the FCC held a day-long hearing on “localism” and media ownership in Monterey.

At the same time, the U.S. Senate is taking up legislation that could help create more low-power stations like KDRT and KDEE.

“I think there’s about to be an earthquake shift in media ownership and distribution,” Boyer said. And if he has his way, he’ll be one of its epicenters, shouting “Bid ’em in” into his microphone.

In January 2000, the FCC established new rules allowing licenses for local community radio stations broadcasting at up to 100 watts of power. The Low Power FM (LPFM) Service, as it is called today, was advocated by then-FCC Chairman William Kennard, a Clinton appointee and Michael Powell’s predecessor. Kennard pushed the new rules partly in response to the explosive growth of media conglomerates like Clear Channel, which, thanks to the loosening media consolidation under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, were buying up hundreds of local radio stations. Low-power stations were intended to replace some small part of the localism and community service that was being lost in the era of corporate media consolidation.

At the same time, the FCC had its hands full trying to shut down so-called pirate radio stations run by media activists who practiced civil disobedience of the airwaves.

More than 3,000 organizations applied for new LPFM licenses when they were made available in 2000. During that time, nine different groups applied for a single frequency that had opened up in Sacramento. These included church groups; Sutter Middle School; Boyer; and Access Sacramento, the community-access cable station.

But before the applications could even be processed, the rules suddenly changed. In December 2000, Congress—under pressure from the broadcast industry group the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the giant public-radio network National Public Radio (NPR)—passed the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act of 2000.

“They should have called it the Broadcast Industry Preservation Act,” remarked Shane Carpenter, who coordinates radio programs for Access Sacramento, one of the original applicants for an LPFM license in Sacramento. (Access Sacramento currently provides radio programming, including Berkeley station KPFA, on the second audio channels of its two cable channels.)

The NAB and NPR both complained that the low-power rules would allow new low-power stations to interfere with existing normal power stations. To address their concerns, Congress passed a new rule that required any prospective low-power station to have three empty channels on either side of the frequency on which it wanted to broadcast. If you wanted to broadcast at 97.7, then 97.5, 97.3 and 97.1 on one side, and 97.9, 98.1 and 98.3, all would have to be empty. The old rules only required two empty channels on either side of the frequency.

The upshot was that hundreds of potential community broadcasters, including those vying for a low-power station in Sacramento, suddenly found that the frequencies they had applied for were now unavailable.

Of the original group that applied, only Boyer persevered. “Everybody else walked away,” explained Boyer, a retired horse trainer who lives in Colonial Heights. He, on the other hand, spent $6,000 of his own money hiring broadcast-engineering consultants to find a frequency that worked within the new rules. It wasn’t easy to find one.

“The spectrum is sliced up so thin. If it was bologna, you could see through it,” he said.

Bill Boyer in the home studio he built in Colonial Heights. He’s not sure if he’ll even be on the air when KDEE, 97.7 FM, powers up this fall.

Photo By Larry Dalton

But Boyer finally did find a slice, at 97.7 FM. If all goes well, the new signal would cover the Greenback area, taking in Del Paso Heights, North Highlands, Midtown and parts of Rancho Cordova and Oak Park.

The Davis group was luckier. The frequency that Jeff Shaw applied for, on behalf of Davis Community Television, was not affected by the more restrictive rules that affected Sacramento. Still, after years of waiting (“Things slowed down quite a bit when Powell was appointed,” Shaw explained), KDRT volunteers now have to scramble to raise money, buy equipment, learn how to use it and actually build the studio inside the DCTV building in Davis.

“Yeah, we are sweating it a bit,” Shaw said.

Shaw said he believes the station will cover the entire city of Davis, along with Woodland, Dixon and part of West Sacramento. The station could play music, but he hopes it will focus on local public-affairs programming.

“We need to reclaim at least a bit of the airwaves. There’s a real dearth of local programming on the radio these days,” Shaw said.

On August 4, at 6 p.m., KDRT will hold a community meeting aimed at getting input from volunteers and to help raise money to build the station. The meeting will be at the Hattie Webber Museum in Davis’ Central Park.

Shaw said more than 50 people have volunteered already to produce programs, and though he expects none of them will be as slick as the commercial stations’, he hopes KDRT will help restore the role local radio used to play in communities across the country.

“I don’t usually go past about 92 on the dial,” said Shaw. “I’d just rather hear real people on the radio. And I think once people start hearing their friends and themselves on the radio, they will rediscover its value.”

Though KDRT and KDEE are the first stations in the Sacramento area created under the low-power radio rules, Shaw hopes they won’t be the only ones.

U.S Senators John McCain and Patrick Leahy have introduced a bill, Senate Bill 2505, that would, in McCain’s words, “right a serious wrong” done by NAB and NPR. McCain called the claims of interference “grossly exaggerated” as he introduced the bill. The new rule would remove the restrictions placed on the radio spectrum by the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act of 2000. That could open up thousands of new frequencies across the country. But its impact on Sacramento is harder to gauge.

It is clear that most of the new stations would go to rural areas, where the radio spectrum is less crowded, and not to urban areas, where the demand actually may be greater.

“If you live in Arbuckle or Nicholas or some other place where much of the population is bovine, it will help a lot,” said Boyer of the McCain legislation.

“But you can hunt downtown Sacramento until the cows come home, and you will not find one bit of frequency that has not already been divided up.”

Chip Morgan, with Broadcast Systems—one of the consultants that helped Boyer find 97.7—said the new rules might create one or two or possibly three new frequencies in the Sacramento area, but the trick is in finding them.

“Joe Blow with a slide rule and some maps can go out there and try to figure it out. But it’s really very complicated,” he said.

Ron Cooper, director of Access Sacramento, said he supports the McCain legislation and hopes that his organization will get an LPFM license someday. But he said the low-power rules just scratch the surface of the media-ownership problem.

“This whole issue of localism is really about having a diversity of voices in the media. And the model of corporate media ownership has really reduced that diversity,” Cooper said.

Many of these issues were heard by the FCC commissioners during the hearing on “localism” in Monterey earlier this week.

That hearing, and others like it around the nation, grew out of public anger at an attempt by Powell, the FCC chairman, to loosen media-ownership rules even further.

Low-power stations, said Cooper, provide some political cover to Powell and others who want to show that localism and diversity are being addressed while they avoid more-fundamental media reforms.

“It’s kind of a shell game, isn’t it?” mused Cooper. Still, he’ll take what he can get. “If there comes a time when there are two, six, even 10 low-power community stations in Sacramento, I’ll have less to complain about,” he said.

Boyer, too, will take what he can get. But having secured the license and even built his own studio in his garage, the truth is that KDEE is now mostly out of Boyer’s hands. Under the current low-power rules, individuals aren’t allowed to hold these licenses. Boyer handed the license over to the California Black Chamber of Commerce, which is now responsible for KDEE.

When he spoke with SN&R, Boyer said he had seen little activity by the chamber to get KDEE built. The chamber’s director, Aubry Stone, said much work remained to get the station up and running. “Of course, I worry. It’s my job to worry,” Stone explained, but he added he was confident the station would be on the air by October. As for Boyer, it’s not clear at all what his role in the new station will be. He wonders if his outspoken and radical politics will clash with what he perceives as the more genteel sensibility of the chamber.

“You know,” Boyer reflected, “I don’t know if they are actually going to let a radical nigger like me on the radio.”