||Low-Power FM Radio to Gain Space on the Dial
When John Freeman turned on his car radio one recent day and tuned to KOCZ, the voice he heard was a 2-year-old girl's.
It belonged to Nyla Belton, the daughter of the afternoon D.J., Craig Belton. She's better known on the air as "D.J. Scribble" and sometimes speaks up between songs.
Mr. Freeman, the station's executive director, chuckled and pointed to the radio. "That's what's special about low-power FM," he said.
KOCZ's signal is a mere 100 watts, so low that its reach is only 10 to 15 miles. Mr. Freeman cannot even tune in from his home. But the station has become an unlikely lifeline in this town of 22,000, helping promote local artists and church events in ways that commercial stations either cannot or will not.
Advocates for low-power FM, or LPFM, as it is called, say the stations are a slight corrective to the consolidation of commercial radio. Soon there will be more: this month President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, which repeals restrictions on such stations and allows the Federal Communications Commission to give out more 100-watt licenses.
Freeing space on the radio dial for local voices might seem a moot point in an age when anyone can start an Internet radio station. But the appropriation of the public airwaves remains a vital and, for some, very emotional issue.
A majority of Americans "still get their news and culture over the broadcast dial," said Hannah Sassaman, a longtime advocate of community radio. For Ms. Sassaman and others, this month's bill signing was the culmination of 10 years of lobbying for more access to the airwaves. "I care about this because I have seen these stations light people up and cause political coverage, local music and community organizing to happen around the country and the world," Ms. Sassaman said.
KOCZ, for instance, helped to bring zydeco music back to the radio dial in this part of Louisiana. Zydeco, a potent blend of Cajun, rhythm and blues and, among a younger generation, hip-hop, often features accordion and washboard and is a passion of people in the region. It is played on KOCZ every day between 6 and 8 p.m.
"It helps promote that culture -- and that's something that's very significant for the African-American community here," said Mr. Freeman, who slyly added that he thought commercial stations had started playing more zydeco since KOCZ started broadcasting in 2002. "They know that we make them better," he said.
Mr. Freeman describes KOCZ as "a mission." A retired executive for Bell South, he calls himself a "corporate guy" who became a convert to low-power radio, thanks to Ms. Sassaman and other community organizers. Low-power stations are designated for noncommercial uses, so many are licensed to churches and schools. KOCZ is licensed to the Southern Development Foundation, a civil rights group that grants scholarships and runs a business incubator but has fallen on hard times. The foundation treats the station as a 24-hour form of community outreach.
Shows are hosted by about 20 volunteers like Mr. Belton, who plays R&B and hip-hop on weekday afternoons, and Lena Charles, the chairwoman of the foundation board, who hosts a weekend talk show and held candidate forums for the local elections last year.
"Politically, some people don't talk to other people," Ms. Charles said. "But we talk to everybody. We're a bridge sometimes."
Each show depends on the underwriting of local sponsors like funeral homes and beauty salons. "Without them, we'd be pretty much shut down," Mr. Freeman said. Recently three microphones at KOCZ were out of order, forcing guests to share the one remaining mike with the host.
Now low-power stations are few and far between and exist mostly in rural areas, squeezed in among the commercial stations. It isn't always comfortable. KOCZ has been moved around the dial by the Federal Communications Commission a number of times, mirroring the larger struggle to gain more space for small stations.
The community radio act was passed during the lame-duck session of Congress last month. After President Obama signed the act, Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the F.C.C., called it a "big win" for radio listeners.
"Low-power FM stations are small, but they make a giant contribution to local community programming," he said in a statement. Notably, the act may make it possible for some low-power outlets to sprout up in urban areas, where they could reach more listeners than a station like KOCZ does. Now it is up to the F.C.C. to start accepting applications for new licenses.
The station in Opelousas has led Mr. Freeman to conclude that bigger is not always better. For KOCZ, smaller is better, because smaller means more local.
One day last year when Mr. Belton was on the air, a woman walked into the station (located in an otherwise unremarkable white-paneled house in the middle of town) and asked for an announcement to be broadcast about her lost dog.
"She was able to get her dog back the next day," said Helen Pickney, the station manager, still marveling at the story.
KOCZ doesn't know how many listeners it has, since it is too small to be rated. Mr. Freeman instead cites a different sort of rating: the waiting list for people who want to host a show. There are more than 20 on the list, he said -- enough to start a second station.
(Source: The New York Times, 01/25/11)
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