Radio activist

Gavin Dahl


Common Frequency’s Gavin Dahl is passionate about returning radio to the true owners of the airwaves: the public. As the organization’s community broadcast coordinator, he assists new and prospective stations across the country in providing diverse and alternative independent programming to their communities. Find out more about Common Frequency and its benefit event on April 23 at

How did you get involved with Common Frequency?

I was working three jobs while my girlfriend finished her master’s thesis at [University of Colorado] Boulder, and despite my love for projecting films and all the readers I was reaching writing for The Raw Story, I felt compelled to fight for more community-radio capacity in this country.

With a very small operating budget, Common Frequency has had a huge impact on the ability of nonprofit groups across the country to navigate the bureaucracy required to start a legal radio station. We located a small amount of money available through this great program called Transmission Project, and I moved out to Davis in August for a year of capacity-building public service. We help other nonprofits organize to get on the radio in their own communities.

Why does radio still matter?

The combination of music, news, local voices, culture, representation and interactivity make radio a great tool for organizing. But most radio is closed off from participation. We think innovative new radio programming on the West Coast will revitalize the medium at a crucial time when so many people are abandoning the cheapest, most ubiquitous way to communicate.

While the digital divide has narrowed, access to broadband Internet is still not universal, and it can hardly be defined as affordable. … The FM dial is totally different. FM radio equipment is totally ubiquitous in the U.S. Most every automobile, alarm clock, Walkman and stereo receiver has a radio tuner built in. If your audience is local, broadcast is very efficient. Think of the millions of dollars it takes just to run advertisements on commercial TV. You can launch a full-power educational radio station for $250,000, a low-power FM station for $25,000, and a pirate station for $2,500 and a couple cases of beer.

A major hurdle for Internet communication is the cost of distribution related to the scale of the operation. Think about Pandora with millions and millions of listeners. The bigger the audience, the more expensive the bandwidth for them. Once you build a radio station, put up the antenna and turn on the signal, it costs the same to broadcast to 10 people or 10,000.

What do you think is the main issue with commercial radio today?

It’s clear that consolidation of the radio industry has led to homogenized playlists and narrow coverage of the world around us. Did you know that minorities represented less than 9 percent of the radio workforce in 2009, despite making up at least 34 percent of the population? It’s not going to get better, it is getting worse. Drowning under massive debt and desperate to cut more costs, Clear Channel laid off over 2,500 employees in 2009 alone.

How are noncommercial radio stations typically funded?

Noncommercial radio depends on listener support, underwriting (which is a limited version of advertising), plus online banner ads, concerts and other special events, funding from grants and foundations, and new revenue models like online campaigns and merchandising.

How can people learn to take back radio?

The biggest secular, noncommercial networks are NPR and Pacifica. NPR tends to be watered-down and safe, with a pro-government bias. Pacifica tends to be angry and tone-deaf, with a bias against the government. They’re both essential voices in the landscape. But Common Frequency is planning a new radio network, starting on the West Coast, that strives to reach younger and more diverse audiences. We need more news partnerships and regional collaborations. In our area there are some great opportunities to get training including Access Sacramento, Sacramento Press, KVMR, KDVS (which airs our radio show, Making Waves) and Davis Media Access—where I’m also a deejay on KDRT.

Can anyone start a station?

In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission will make hundreds of frequencies available all over the country for new local radio stations. We are focused on reaching out to PEG access television centers, the public educational and governmental agencies who have over 2,000 existing facilities in the U.S. Anyone reading this who wants to start a radio station in Northern California should get in touch with us.

What’s next for Common Frequency?

We are kicking off a capital campaign to raise money for the construction of a new radio station in coastal Marin County with a benefit event on Saturday, April 23, on campus at UC Davis. We will have dinner and a panel on the fight for community voices and student radio, and then some great local bands will play.

Our main focus right now is raising awareness and building coalitions to support the launch of two dozen new independent public radio stations on the West Coast. But as always, we’re fielding questions from folks across the country, providing free or low-cost technical support, and working to ensure as many public radio channels are available for free speech as we can.