Last week I had the opportunity to chat with Sabrina Roach, who works for Brown Paper Tickets' philanthropic arm (it's called the "Doer Program," and it's fascinating). Roach specializes in public interest media, and she's really excited about the FCC's new low-power FM licenses that will be coming available this fall.
What the hell is low-power FM? It's radio that broadcasts at 100 watts or less—in a city, with buildings and hills and such, that would reach about three miles. (For reference, KEXP broadcasts at about 4,000 watts, KUOW at around 100,000.) The FCC is opening a new licensing window starting sometime in October, and it'll be the first time licenses for these mini-stations will be allowed in urban areas. Seattle would have about eight stations. Licenses are only available for noncommercial organizations, e.g. educational institutions, nonprofits, and emergency services.
Roach says low-power FM (LPFM) is perfect for the "PEG universe"—that's public access, education, and government channels, which could get LPFM stations and be multiplatform deliverers of public interest media. And she says LPFM is also a great fit for arts and culture organizations, and for multilingual broadcasting.
It's free to apply for a license, and if you get it, the license itself is also free. But the cost of building a working radio station could run from $10,000 to $30,000 or more. So she looked into grants and matching funds in Seattle and King County that could be used by organizations to start LPFM stations. She identified an astounding $9 million, from places like 4Culture and Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs.
Brown Paper Tickets has committed to "enlisting the resources necessary to fill every possible frequency with a licensed applicant," says spokeswoman Barb Morgen. They're 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. You can go to Sabrina Roach's "Doer" page here, where she'll be posting information about those programs. They're also having a big kickoff event at SXSW on March 12.
For now, it's an interesting imaginative exercise. How would a neighborhood-centered radio station best be used? Roach pointed out that even with KEXP's relatively small wattage, "they have global reach because of the strength of their programming." There's even stories of LPFM stations being granted full-power radio licenses later. But it's not a simple thing, either. It'll be fun to watch how it all plays out this year as organizations step up to put together their applications.