Low Power to the People

The FCC Will License Up to Eight Underground Radio Stations in Seattle

"This is fucking cool, man, this is as cool as it gets," a local activist is telling me on the phone. "It's the coolest damn thing I've ever seen in 30 years of activism... Planning for this should start now." I'm talking to self-described "media freak" Jim Goettler about low-power FM radio. Due to recent federal rule changes, Seattle could have up to eight new mini radio stations in the next few years, each broadcasting for miles on just 100 watts—the power of a lightbulb. And a cadre of media activists in Seattle is coming together to make sure this one-time-only opportunity doesn't go to waste.

For example, Hollow Earth Radio, which runs their online-only radio station out of a Central District storefront with volunteer DJs, would love to get on the old-fashioned radio dial, and they see low-power FM as a perfect opportunity. "I'm excited about all the collaborations in the future and the different kinds of media that will come out of it," Hollow Earth cofounder Garrett Kelly tells me via e-mail. Same with 206 Zulu, which runs the locally produced hiphop show Zulu Radio on KBCS once a week but sees promise in helping to run an independent station. Kitty Wu from 206 Zulu says, "We've been talking about bringing a radio station here for a long time."

This all results from the Local Community Radio Act, introduced by US senator Maria Cantwell and signed into law in 2011, which requires the Federal Communications Commission to allow more low-power radio operators. In October, the FCC will open a filing window for people to apply for low-power FM (LPFM) licenses, which permit a station to broadcast at 100 watts for noncommercial purposes. For the first time—and likely the last, given how full the FM dial already is—these stations will be available in urban areas.

In Seattle, there's space for about eight new stations, each broadcasting over a radius of about three miles in our hilly, skyscraper-filled city terrain. But they could have even farther reach: LPFM licensees will be allowed to own relay stations that rebroadcast their content, meaning they could blanket much of the city. Media advocates say that if you want to apply in October, you should start planning now.

But why would you want to get an old- fashioned radio station, when you could just run one on the internet or record podcasts?

I ask Sabrina Roach, who's worked in public-interest media for more than a decade. "Radio is so much less expensive to produce" than other kinds of mainstream media, like TV, she points out, and it reaches a lot of people. This is an opportunity "for more people to own actual licenses." That is, Hollow Earth Radio, which started in an attic and has shows like Konspiracy Korner and OlympiYEAH!, would be right there on the dial next to NPR and Clear Channel's Top 40 regurgitation.

And, on the consumer end, "a radio from Radio Shack is a lot less expensive than a MacBook," says Roach. For all the ubiquity of the internet, there are large swaths of the population, particularly low-income people, who don't have easy access to broadband internet to stream audio.

From a media-justice perspective, that's a huge deal. It means more diverse producers of content broadcasting to a more diverse audience. "Radio reaches people in their cars, while they're doing dishes, while they're doing chores," Roach says. It's an old medium, but it works incredibly well.

Since LPFM has so far been only in small towns and rural areas, it remains to be seen what it could do in the city. However, one station could offer a glimpse into Seattle's future: KYRS in Spokane, a decade-old community station, started out as an LPFM station with an old tower they found in an alfalfa field and a swarm of volunteers. In 2011, they upgraded to full power.

Station manager Lupito Flores says they broadcast "everything under the sun, but we try not to duplicate what's already on Spokane radio." That means little to no religious or country music. Instead, they have locally produced radio shows in multiple languages, shows aimed at African American, Native American, and Iranian American communities, a show produced and hosted by elementary school kids, a poetry show, and music from punk to hiphop to experimental.

There's a lot of money and a lot of support for LPFM in Seattle, too. Roach currently works for Brown Paper Tickets, which, as part of their community outreach program, is pushing to support LPFM by helping potential applicants learn the rules and find funding. When Roach looked into grants and matching funds in Seattle and King County that could be used to start LPFM stations, she identified an astonishing $9 million from places like 4Culture and Seattle's Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. But some of the deadlines for these funds are as early as March.

As part of her outreach, Roach is hosting a series of workshops and information sessions through winter and spring, helping potential applicants pull together the necessary resources—lawyers, engineers, business plans, fundraising plans. (Check out her work at

The potential feels almost limitless—just think of eight little KEXPs. In the course of reporting this story, people kept reminding me that KEXP started as a 10-watt station that couldn't even broadcast past the UW campus, and now, as Roach points out, "they have global reach, because of the strength of their programming." recommended


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mrbarky 15
KEXP is the dullest station on the planet. Daytime radio is John Richards' Cavalcade of Dull Indy Rock Guitar Music. Night time radio is hillbilly music 3 days out of the week. Even state owned radio stations like RTP Portugal has more interesting music than KEXP.
Posted by mrbarky on June 10, 2013 at 4:14 PM · Report this
I'd really like the return of something that used to be called "Progressive Radio" from back in the 1970s. That's when D.J.'s were allowed to talk...for five or ten minutes if they wanted to, about music or issues. And they could play any cut on the album or a whole side. It was a complete ethos in which you could spend an auditory life.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe http://_ on June 10, 2013 at 3:40 PM · Report this
If you are interested in KRAB, there is a website in construction documenting what it was that made it special:
Posted by Fessinden on April 14, 2013 at 9:09 PM · Report this
If you are interested in KRAB, there is a website in construction documenting whgat it was that made it special:
Posted by Fessinden on April 14, 2013 at 8:15 PM · Report this
inquiastador 11
I certainly do not need little kexp's unless they can get back to what they used to be. It has been entirely downhill since they started whoring themselves for NYC.
Posted by inquiastador on February 24, 2013 at 5:04 PM · Report this
I hope the LAST thing this gives us is "eight little KEXPs".
Posted by jack chandelier on February 20, 2013 at 2:04 PM · Report this
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mister_fusspot 8
Some folks would take issue with Ms. Roach's assessment of KEXP: "They have global reach, because of the strength of their programming."

The station's reach was most heavily impacted by a massive infusion of cash and facility upgrades from Paul Allen, coupled with an aggressively expansionist management team; the music itself was not nearly as large a contributing factor.

The point is not to bash KEXP (or Ms. Roach), but to suggest that the real opportunity with these LPFM licenses lies not in making "eight little KEXP's" (author Anna Minard's words), but rather, to create broadcasting entities that are first and foremost concerned with best serving their own immediate community, while developing a local, audience-driven funding base.
Posted by mister_fusspot on February 18, 2013 at 4:02 PM · Report this
Yeah, KRAB became KSER which I just left after 15 yrs volunteering as a dj because they don't care about music or community anymore. I hope one of these LPFM stations starts in Everett so I can play real music again!
Posted by djdancr on February 14, 2013 at 10:13 PM · Report this
DeaconBlues 6
I love this idea. community radio started here in Seattle and I'm excited to see it come back. speaking of which, it would be cool to see a feature on KRAB or Lorenzo Milam at some point.
Posted by DeaconBlues on February 13, 2013 at 11:44 PM · Report this
Jeez, I miss AM 1090. If one of these stations became a progressive political station, I would listen. Granted, they wouldn't be able to afford the national stars like Stephanie Miller, but I bet there's some local talent here ready to reach an audience.
Posted by MyDogBen on February 13, 2013 at 9:49 PM · Report this
Dougsf 4
@3 - Thank you. This is good news regardless, but that gives me hope for the possibility an LPFM station could fill the void that college radio has left with its increasing shift toward MOR.
Posted by Dougsf on February 13, 2013 at 4:47 PM · Report this
Hey Doug - LPFM stations are actually given a discounted rate for licensing costs, so we're looking at a much lower cost than for other stations. Here's a guide from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters:…

I think this is from 2007, so the rates are definitely higher, but you're overall looking at 4-digits, total, which is definitely doable for any organization that's serious about this.
Posted by kaz on February 13, 2013 at 4:28 PM · Report this
Sir Vic 2
I'd also like to hear about the practical tests of the LPFM broadcast range. I keep seeing the term "3 miles", but is that number valid for the Seattle area? That signal is going to be pretty weak, so music broadcasting might not be so appealing.
FM radio reception in the Puget Sound region has always been spotty, even with high power signals. Will anyone more than 1 mile away from these new stations be able to get a strong enough signal to keep them tuned in?
Relay stations are nice, but if they are also low power, how effective will they be?
Posted by Sir Vic on February 13, 2013 at 2:51 PM · Report this
Dougsf 1
No mention of what ASCAP, BMI, et al. licenses might be for stations this size, that wish to play music? I'm curious if we're talking $250 or $10,000 per year.

The low start-up costs might be insignificant, depending on those licensing fees.
Posted by Dougsf on February 13, 2013 at 12:43 PM · Report this

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