Engineer Pete Tridish is buried in wires. He's sitting at a table at Hollow Earth Radio in the Central District, holding a soldering iron, surrounded by a tangle of cables, tiny screwdrivers, and duct tape—and eating half a taco wrapped in tin foil from the truck across the street. It looks like a mess.
"This? A mess? No. Wires are cooperative. They eventually bend to your will. But people... not so much," he jokes.
Tridish describes himself as a radio engineer, media policy advocate, and troublemaker. His mission for the last 20 or so years has been to battle the radio powers that be (like the Federal Communications Commission and corporate-owned media) to help local communities take control of the airwaves.
Scanning the radio dial can yield mostly commercial stations blasting Top 40 hits interrupted by ads in order to reap as much money as possible. Even on the "left of the dial," where you can find college-owned and public radio, approximately 42 percent of noncommercial stations have a religious format, according to a 2010 FCC survey.
So between National Public Radio's focus on national (and often syndicated) news and Christian-oriented stations asking you to accept Jesus as your personal lord and savior, there's not a lot of room for a radio equivalent of the local blog, which can serve smaller communities like neighborhoods and immigrant groups.
That's where low power FM (commonly referred to as LPFM) community radio stations come in. LPFM stations may have small signals—less than 100 watt frequencies that usually reach only a few square miles—but they've got big hearts. Often run by part-timers or volunteers with a passion for radio, the DJs, citizen journalists, and hosts usually live in or around the community.
But it's only in the last couple of years, thanks in part to activists like Tridish and to 2013's Low Power FM Act (which passed in part due to the efforts of US senator Maria Cantwell of Washington), that the filing window for thousands of low power FM licenses opened up. Once closed, it may never open again.
It only took almost 20 years to get here. Back in the 1990s, Pete Tridish (say it out loud) was an activist tired of how the media would always get the story wrong.
"We would put together a demonstration against a war or against apartheid, and we just felt we were really drastically misrepresented when it came to media accounts of what we were doing."
So he and a group of his friends adopted some clever code names (Millie Watt, Anne Tenna) and started Radio Mutiny, a pirate radio station in Philadelphia.
Radio Mutiny ran for two years before it was shut down by the FCC. But the FCC chairman at the time, William Kennard, a Clinton appointee, expressed concern about the lack of minority ownership in the media and ordered a study to see if it was possible to run stations of less than 100 watts that didn't interfere with bigger commercial or public radio signals. The study found that it was possible.
"My pirate station was busted, and I didn't know what to do with myself," Tridish recalls. But he realized that "if a progressive group didn't step up to try to get some of these licenses, it'd be very ironic, because a bunch of churches would get all the frequencies that our civil disobedience had caused to open up!"
So the pirate radio punk became a grassroots lobbyist as one of the founding members of Prometheus, a media-justice organization that worked for 10 years to get LPFM where it is now—with almost 2,800 applicants for community radio licenses nationwide, and about 800 currently on the air.
The low power radio movement is flourishing in the Puget Sound region. Washington State is fourth for the number of fully licensed LPFMs in the country, and Seattle/King County's 10 LPFM applications (an above-average amount for a city of its size) have filled up all the available frequencies left.
Five new stations across the greater Seattle/Tacoma area recently went on the air—in Rainier Valley, the Central District, Magnuson Park, SeaTac, and Tacoma. And more will soon be added to the mix—in Ballard, Mercer Island, Kent, and Bothell. Oftentimes, these stations are run by organizations that work with youth, students, immigrants, and other community groups.
As local media keeps shrinking more every day, these frequencies matter because they give these groups a permanent home in the media landscape and provide a forum for debate about important local issues.
For those who say that the terrestrial signal is dead, consider this: A 2015 Pew Research Center survey put radio listenership in the United States at 91 percent. Satellite radio stations like Sirius XM saw a 10 percent jump in revenue from 2013 to 2014, and NPR reached an "all-time high" of 37.4 million listeners—broadcast listeners—in 2016.
"Well, I just feel lucky that I didn't focus on the internet," Tridish says. "What if I had been like, 'Oh, I'm going to totally fix Myspace to be so much more inclusive'? Well, screw that! I mean, radio is on this really interesting path. Lots of other technologies have come and gone pretty quickly. I just feel fortunate that it still worked out to be something important 10 or 20 years later."
At the moment of our interview, he's wiring up an emergency alert system, required for all radio stations. His colleague Elizabeth Delaquess thumbs through a manual. They're here from Minneapolis and Madison, Wisconsin, respectively, to help get Seattle's new LPFM radio stations on the air, with a tight FCC deadline breathing down their neck.
Tridish has dozens of these builds under his belt, and they're usually done as a "radio barn-raising" that takes place over a weekend. But this time, they'd been called in to set up five stations in the Seattle area in just two weeks.
"It's definitely my record," Tridish says.
The work includes installing transmitters, writing training manuals, troubleshooting, building the studio for SPACE, and putting the antenna for Radio Tacoma in an usual location—a tree.
"I've never done that before. And when I wrote to my engineer friends, about half of them were like: 'Just walk away. Don't even touch that.'" But he gave it a shot anyway, and it worked.
Rainier Valley Radio (KVRU) is at 105.7 FM on the dial. In Magnuson Park, SPACE (KMGP), run by Sand Point Arts and Cultural Exchange, is 101.1 FM. Hollow Earth Radio (KHUH), once an online-only station, now broadcasts at 104.9 FM in the Central District. There's also KQWZ in SeaTac at 106.5 FM, and two Tacoma stations, Radio Tacoma (KTAH) at 101.9 FM and KTQA at 95.3 FM. Earth On-the-Air radio (KODX) is broadcasting on 96.9 FM in the University District, and Seattle University's station (KXSU) is on Capitol Hill and First Hill at 102.1 FM. And in the Ballard/Fremont/Greenwood area, there's KBFG at 103.7 FM. Voice of Vashon (KVSH) is at 101.9 FM on Vashon Island, and in Duvall/Carnation/Redmond Ridge, KAPY is at 103.1 FM.
These stations give audiences more choices, Tridish says. "There are more opportunities to hear things that aren't commercial radio stuff, or the NPR drone, or whatever."
"The night we put Hollow Earth on the air, we were driving to the supermarket to get celebratory ice cream," adds Delaquess. "So we tuned in to them, and heard, like, frog noises with some sparse piano and some kind of electronica, and we're just listening and going What? I mean, where else would you hear this? You would never hear it. LPFM radio is like this giant spectrum of humanity that you don't hear on 95 percent of the radio dial."
Communities with LPFM stations can discover more than just weird music—they can discover their voice, says Sharon Maeda, the station manager for Rainier Valley Radio. "In whatever that means—whether it's their history, their culture, or even conflicts they have with people in other cultures. Radio can be a place, a safe space, where they can dialogue, debate, and learn from each other."
And community radio, she adds, is accessible to experience (you don't need a broadband connection and radios are cheap) and to make (you don't have to be a professional to get on the air). In fact, it was this "democratizing force" of radio that drew Maeda back in.
"I wouldn't come out of retirement for just anything!" she exclaims.
Maeda, 72, is a bit of a community radio powerhouse, with more than 40 years of experience, some of them heading up Pacifica Radio, a national network of FM news stations. A resident of Beacon Hill, Maeda actually got her start in radio at KRAB—a free-form Seattle radio station started by the eccentric Lorenzo Milan, who eventually grew the "KRAB nebula" to include community radio stations KBOO in Portland and KAOS in Olympia, among others.
For the past few weeks, Maeda has been working 60 hours a week, not only to get the station on the air but also to make KVRU a source of information and political power for her community. The station has started an ambitious, multilingual voting drive, and it also cosponsored the mayoral debate hosted at Rainier Arts Center on October 18.
Right now, the station is playing automated R&B classics to get over the "FCC deadline hump" of just getting the station on the air, but Maeda intends for KVRU to deliver all local programming to serve one of the state's most diverse zip codes.
"My dream is, for example, an interview with the Ethiopian community center talking about the struggles that the people here in the valley are having. Or an African Dreamer talking about what it's like to be one of the few Africans in this whole DACA movement."
Maeda says she's not sure about the programming specifics yet, but the station has been getting a lot of applications for shows. "People are sending in proposals, and people are coming by. It's been very exciting."
The secret to Seattle's LPFM success may very well be Sabrina Roach, who has worked behind the scenes for the last six years connecting community groups to a network she formed, the Puget Sound Radio Neighborhood Cohort, and guiding station hopefuls through the murky process of getting legit for the FCC.
As a "doer" for Brown Paper Tickets, it's part of her job. The company has created these "doer" roles in order to build communities around things like art, community media, and (oddly enough) roller derby. Roach sees a bright future for LPFM in Seattle.
"Right now, this is just a toehold. This is just them getting on the air. But these licenses are here to stay," she says.