Pirate radio catches airwaves

After decades of corporate consolidation, FCC is poised to license more community radio stations in Sacramento


The radio station is little more than a back office tucked into a strip mall on the outskirts of the city on Folsom Boulevard, just past a lonely Home Depot and two different Starbucks drive-thrus. Filled with one desk and a short stack of electronics—primarily a CD player and some sort of jet-black transmitter with blinking red lights—KDEE pumps a feeble 100 watts into the Sacramento Valley, pushing radio waves only as far as the foothills a few miles away.

But with its unique programming—a fearless song choice that bounds from thumping Grandmaster Flash to lesser-known Stevie Wonder songs, music that commercial stations rarely play, and earnest public-service announcements that urge black men to get diplomas and women to eat more healthfully—the station is, in fact, part of what may be one of the most important trends in broadcast media.

“Radio needs to speak to something,” said Tristen Mayes, a 40-hour-a-week deejay and self-proclaimed talk-show host who is one of only three paid staffers at KDEE, a micro-broadcasting station managed by the California Black Chamber of Commerce. He pushed away a crane-neck microphone bolted to the desk, leaned back in his chair, and crossed his broad arms over his middle-aged belly. “Radio is broken,” he said, “and no one is speaking to us.” He paused before clarifying, “In Sacramento, nothing spoke to Afro-Americans, unless it was for some political advantage.”

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 over the past 15 years, radio, more than any other medium, has experienced the quick consolidation of ownership and control of stations by corporate interests.

In the mid-1990s, the nation’s 10,000 radio stations were owned by some 5,000 entities. 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.

Yet in a quixotic effort to counter this trend, community organizers and pirate-radio-station enthusiasts tried 10 years ago to convince the Federal Communications Commission 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 61 in California, like KDEE in Sacramento.

And, in the coming months, this plan for “locally grown radio” is set to double in size, scope and, correspondingly, impact.

In January, President Barack Obama signed into law the Local Community Radio Act, an order to open up the airwaves to a second batch of 1,000 or so micro broadcasting stations—or, in FCC parlance, LPFM stations (low-power FM). The FCC currently is hammering out final details, but as soon as this summer, an opportunity for those licenses will become available.

Yet these new opportunities will hardly be a slam dunk for groups like the California Black Chamber of Commerce or other community organizations: For starters, the competition for these new licenses promises to be intense, and if past practices are any indicator, the FCC tends to favor religious organizations when it hands out licenses.

In Sacramento, one of the few urban areas to receive permission for a LPFM license, these micro broadcasting stations are critical for defining communities, a duty ignored by the syndicated programming from the mega-chains, Mayes said. “We have a space for Curtis Mayfield,” he said, “and we’ll also tell you about some great job opportunities, and help you go back to school, if that’s what you want. We’re a radio station designed to speak to people.”

Nearly 20 percent of Sacramento residents are African-American, but the black community traditionally has not been well-defined. It wasn’t until two years ago that the city elected its first black mayor, Kevin Johnson, and only one of 15 Sacramento commercial radio stations, KSFM 102.5 FM, ostensibly plays to a black audience—and that station is owned by CBS and plays pre-programmed set lists. Mayes claims that listenership at 102.5 KSFM has dropped 10 percent over the past year as KDEE has gained popularity.

He admits that he has no idea how many people listen to KDEE, but the studio phone rings steadily. During an hour-long interview, he received five calls and each time answered with a booming, “Good morning, family.”

Yet that rising popularity doesn’t directly translate into economic security for KDEE—or for any LPFM station. FCC rules demand that LPFM stations be hosted and managed by nonprofits, ruling out opportunities for commercial ads or similar revenue streams.

Mayes is more interested, though, in talking about the role that the station plays in building community rather than making money. “I left Clear Channel,” he explained, leaning forward, his voice gaining pitch and momentum. “I was just tired of it. You couldn’t pay me enough to play the same old stuff. I’m a grown-ass man, and I had to listen to that crap.”

Accordingly, his morning drive-time radio is called Grown Folks Music.

But economics are a reality and an Achilles’ heel for LPFM stations. The California Black Chamber of Commerce, like most nonprofits, relies on grants and donations, a revenue stream particularly susceptible to economic ups and downs. Over the past two years, according to filed Internal Revenue Service returns, donations to the California Black Chamber of Commerce have fallen almost 50 percent. In 2010, the organization raised only $305,000, yet retained its $500,000 annual budget.

And, while KDEE’s operating expenses may seem bare-bones, with only three full-time employees, the Sacramento station actually enjoys what seems like a princely budget when compared to other LPFM stations. In nearby ag town Davis, for example, is the aptly named KDRT 95.7 FM, which, like most LPFM stations, it’s run by volunteers.

“From 8 to 80 years old,” asserted station manager Jeff Shaw. All told, about 70 volunteers staff the Davis radio station, working the front desk, cataloging recordings and hosting various call-in shows that provide advice on everything from sex to soil conditions.

Shaw pointed out that, last year, KDRT put one person on the payroll, a sound engineer who spends dozens of hours each month recording local bands, as well as hosting a popular show that plays those live-recorded tracks, all for an annual salary of $2,000. “He certainly earns it!” exclaimed Shaw.

In addition to the tight economic constraints in which LPFM stations must operate, they’re also hamstrung by other FCC rules. Commercial radio stations treat them as unwanted step-siblings. Technically called a “secondary service,” LPFM stations cannot interfere with any commercial broadcast. When Congress and the FCC hammered out rules for the first round of LPFM stations a decade ago, they were successfully petitioned by a bevy of existing, full-powered stations to place large buffer zones on the radio dial to protect existing signals from interference and static from the community radio stations. In particular, the group lobbying for these rules included an unlikely foe for community radio: National Public Radio.

What resulted was called the third-adjacent rule, perhaps the greatest constraint for LPFM stations: They could not be within three clicks on the dial from any full-power station.

The combination of the secondary service status and third-adjacent rule proved to be a potent one-two punch against LPFM stations. If a commercial station moved into the area, it could bump a LPFM station from its frequency—which is exactly what happened to KDRT in Davis five years ago, when KMJE, an adult-contemporary station, decided to expand into Sacramento Valley and requested the very frequency—101.5 FM—on which KDRT was broadcasting. The request threatened to knock KDRT off the dial and out of business.

Davis’ mayor stepped up and declared a “Media Democracy Month,” and several local bands held benefit concerts. Support and small donations poured in. But all that community backing was to no avail. The commercial station was granted its license, and KDRT was pushed from its home on the dial.

KDRT later found another radio frequency in the area where it could shoehorn its broadcast signal without interrupting any commercial broadcasts. The station now resides at 95.7.

During the past year, the FCC has been busy negotiating new rules for LPFM stations, deciding what allowances and restrictions would be in place for this next round of licenses—and, not surprisingly, the most heated debates flared up over the third-adjacent rule. NPR was steadfast in its support to keep the buffers—a position that made few friends in the LPFM circles but has helped it add 150 more stations to its 635 affiliates over the past decade, stations that would have had a decidedly more difficult time finding adequate space on the airwaves if not given priority over LPFM stations.

Yet in spite of the heavy lobbying, the FCC released in March a tongue-tying report entitled, The Fifth Report and Order, Fourth Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Fourth Order on Reconsideration. It was a shocker; it sided with LPFM stations and tossed out the third-adjacent rule. It was a remarkable decision, and will allow more LPFM stations to squeeze in on radio bands around the country, especially in urban areas like Sacramento.