More low-power radio coming to Sacramento

Sacramentans apply for FM community stations

Sometime around fourth grade, Bites scored a cheap shortwave radio at a flea market, the kind where you plug in different coils to listen to different wavelengths. All sorts of voices, some familiar, some foreign and some downright alien noises, flowed through that weird-looking little earpiece with the flesh-colored plastic and the clear rubber nipple. Like some sort of pacifier for the ear. Contented hours spent adrift on radio waves. How astonishing it was, then, to learn that scientists used radio antennas to listen to the stars. Still is.

Later, college radio was a lifeline, and a connection to like minds. From there, it was just a nudge up the dial to the local public-radio station, which offered yet another powerful lens onto the world. Today, much of the radio dial is dominated by a few corporations—yes, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The Bitescave has more smartphones in it than radio tuners. And while “radio” is still a big part of the day, it’s more likely to arrive by podcast or Internet stream than by antenna. Still, the airwaves hold a lot possibility.

“Radio is an old technology. But it’s not going away,” says Jeff Shaw, station director at KDRT 95.7 FM, which broadcasts a mix of indie rock, politics and public affairs (and home repair and history and gardening and other stuff) in Davis.

KDRT is one of a few “low-power” community FM stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission back in the early 2000s. The FCC is about to issue many more low-power FM licenses, hopefully, including some in Sacramento. The FCC’s window for new LPFM licenses opened on October 15, and will stay open until November 14. Only nonprofits and schools and public-safety agencies are allowed to apply for the rare licenses.

That’s how KDRT got on the air back in 2005, as well as KDEE 97.5 FM, which is run by the California Black Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and covers Carmichael, Fair Oaks, Folsom and Rancho Cordova.

The low-power movement was a response to the rapid media concentration of the 1990s, and the rise of giant firms like Clear Channel Communications Inc. and Entercom Communications Corporation, and the lack of local community voices on the air. A decade ago, resistance from commercial broadcasters to LPFM was intense, and the number of licenses was severely limited. The new rules, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010, will potentially allow for hundreds of new community radio stations across the country.

Shaw estimates the FCC rules will allow for anywhere between one and four new stations in Sacramento. The FCC won’t disclose the names of any applicants until after the deadline has passed, so it’s hard to tell just who is applying. One Sacramento application is a collective effort of arts and cultural groups, led by the Verge Center for the Arts and the Sacramento French Film Festival. There are doubtless other applicants out there, quietly finishing up their applications.

Groups who do apply will get extra points if they show they have an established community presence, can produce at least eight hours of local programming every day, and staff a station at least 20 hours a week.

A public-radio station like KXJZ 90.9 FM, or a commercial one like KFBK FM 92.5 FM, transmits at about 50,000 watts. For low-power stations, the rule of thumb is about 100 watts, and a broadcast radius of about 3.5 miles. So, a low-power station transmitting from Midtown could reach, say, South Land Park, West Sacramento, North Sacramento, south Natomas and Sacramento State University. Depending on geography and how crowded the dial is at a particular spot, stations can be heard much farther.

And low-power stations, by nature, are volunteer driven with shoestring budgets. KDRT pays for operations with underwriters (like the Davis Food Co-op and Varsity Theatre) and donations (about $20,000 in donations last year). Radio is simple compared to the inner workings of the Internet. But a station still requires help from professional engineers, and serving the community well is not necessarily easy. “I think low-power stations that start off with news are going to thrive,” Shaw says, but added that news, in particular, is expensive and hard to produce.

Is it worth it? In the time of streaming content, when anybody can start a podcast or a website, and reach thousands of people on their phones, is radio just a nostalgic, artisanal medium? The Clear Channels and the Entercoms still seem to find it worthwhile.

“It is kind of abstract for people, until they hear it. Why care about radio?” says Shaw. “I think of it as reclaiming a medium that, in some ways, is no longer relevant to people. When people hear good radio, they come back to it.”