Microradio Stations

FM radio is the cheapest most accessible form of mass media there is – infinitely more accessible than the internet for the overwhelming majority of humanity, However, the power of FM broadcasting as a means for democratic communication, particularly Microradio (a.k.a. Low Power FM) , is not worth much if a station does not have a community tuning in and getting involved. What follows are my suggestions for building a neighborhood radio station based on my experiences in station collectives and what I've learned from visiting other stations around the country. There is not a lot of legal talk in this essay, because my position on the "legality" of Microradio is: fuck the FCC, these are the people's airwaves and we will use them as we see fit. I hope you agree.

How's it Gonna Be?

What you have to determine when you first plan a neighborhood radio station are the following:

  • Who's your community?: I mean that quite literally. Answer these questions for yourself: Who lives in your neighborhood? Who would be interested in being involved in a neighborhood station? Who would be reliable? And conversely: Who would be against a Microradio station (or just doing something "illegal")? Who would be a pain in the ass?

  • Bring in the community at the beginning: It's not a neighborhood radio station if the neighborhood isn't involved. After you have made an effort to find the answers to the questions about your neighborhood, make a strategy based on that information, start approaching people, and form a station collective.

    You might want to start with a small number of reliable and trustworthy people to set up the station, develop a plan for bringing in more of the community to do programming, and then to determine...

  • What level of risk is your station willing to take and how public is your station prepared to be?: Two good examples of stations that answered those questions that suited the needs of their community would be, KIND Radio in San Marcos, TX. And Radio Clandestin@ in East Los Angeles – hopefully you can use these two stations as models for determining how your station will interact with your community.

The folks at KIND Radio had two goals in founding their station: 1) make an open challenge to the FCC by defiantly operating their station as publicly as possible, with the aim of taking the FCC all the way to the Supreme Court if they came down on them, and 2) be a true service to the community by providing 100% local 24/7 programming.

What KIND did to engage the community was distribute a flyer all over town advertising the new station and inviting people in the community to sign up for open time slots – they had a full programming schedule in no time flat. KIND quickly became, in my opinion, one of the best radio stations in the country (licensed or unlicensed), with devoted collective of programmers and a devoted community that was ready to come to the station's defense at a moment's notice.

KIND broadcasted successfully for several years, but sadly the FCC has managed to shut it down, at least temporarily, as their legal strategy did not work out the way they had hoped. But they made a truly valiant effort that is worthy of close study.

Radio Clandestin@, in East LA, took an entirely different route to establishing a station. Originally, Radio Clandestin@ (RC) was established by a small group of young Latino radicals to be a fundraising tool for buying Microradio transmitters for the Zapatistas in Chiapas, but it ended up becoming a very successful station serving the Latino community in Los Angeles.

Radio Clandestin@ certainly lived up to its name. Initially, it was composed of a fairly secretive core collective that only brought new people in whom other collective members could vouch for, however, they had good reasons for operating this way. Being people of color in an oppressed community, they reasoned that if the authorities were to come to shut down the station their treatment would likely be more harsh than if they were a group of white broadcasters -- and not to mention that several members of the collective could be put in danger of being deported if they had a run in with the authorities.

In spite of this method of operation, RC gradually came to play a useful role in their neighborhood and performed a great service to the Zapatista support network operating in LA. To my knowledge, RC is still serving it's community and going strong.

Your station collective will have to determine for itself which end of the spectrum between these two stations that your station will lean towards regarding how it operates.

Practical Considerations

  • How long are you going to broadcast each day?: Work out a coherent schedule based on the programming hours you do have filled. How long you will broadcast each day will change over time, of course, as you gain new programmers, but whether you initially broadcast 4hrs a day or 12hrs a day, do it consistently. Which brings me to...

  • BE CONSISTENT!: Establish a reliable schedule for the sake of your listeners. Let me put that another way: If you want to have listeners AT ALL they need to know that your station will be on the air from time A to time B each day. If you tell people that you will be on the air from noon to midnight, Monday thru Friday, then the listener should NEVER HEAR DEAD AIR during those times of the day. If you can't do that then don't bother starting a station because no one but your friends will ever listen to it.

  • Breaking down responsibilities: When the station is small, your collective can just delegate various responsibilities to individual volunteers, but when the station reaches certain size, it will be a good idea to branch off responsibilities into committees (i.e. The finance and fundraising committee, the programming committee, the technical committee, the outreach committee, etc.).

  • Paying the bills: A Microradio station is pretty damn cheap in itself. The only crucial expenses you'll likely have to worry about are rent (if you rent the space your station resides at) and putting money aside for your station's legal fund. Most successful stations can get by pretty well by having their collective members pay monthly dues (like $5 to $10 per month – it would also be a good idea to implement a sliding scale for dues paying).

    As for buying new equipment, that's not a regular expense. You can throw fundraisers to raise equipment money and even openly pitch for donations on the air (though, I wouldn't try pitching until your station is established in the community). You can also ask for direct donations of the actual items your station needs. Don't underestimate the community, if they love you, they'll come through for you in ways you'll never expect.

I think that covers the essentials for establishing a successful and effective neighborhood radio station. Fight the power and have fun.

--Shawn Ewald

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