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A New Class Of Radio Rolls Into The City

In a musty, old row house in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Jim Bear is about to begin his radio show.

"Good afternoon, everybody," he says into the microphone. "You're listening to G-town Radio at GtownRadio.com. We are the sound from Germantown."

Right now G-town is just an Internet radio station. But if the folks at G-town Radio are successful, they'll soon be broadcasting their signal over low-power FM, a new class of non-commercial FM radio.

Congress approved LPFM in 2001, but restricted it to rural areas because of concerns the stations would interfere with full-power broadcasters in urban areas.

Today, most of the 800 LPFM stations are broadcasting to areas of less than 20,000 people. Bear says taking G-town to FM would mean hundreds of thousands more listeners.

"Germantown is a very diverse community that has a lot of poor people, and a lot of people who don't have the Internet in their homes," Bear says. "That's one of the reasons we think LPFM is such a valuable move for us."

LPFM stations can broadcast hyper-local news to densely populated urban neighborhoods. G-town Radio has the potential to reach residents with stories about a Germantown they may not know.

"We have a lawyer and her partner who do a talk show on legal issues," he explains. "We actually have a collective called The Black Tribbles that does a program about sci-fi geek culture from a black perspective."

The effort to pass federal legislation to license urban LPFM stations was led by Mike Doyle, a Democratic congressman from Pittsburgh.

"The way Congress wrote the law, they couldn't be within four clicks on the dial" from a full-power station, Doyle says. "It greatly restricted stations [in places] like where I'm from."

A Potential Source Of Crucial News

Because of consolidation in the radio industry, many stations no longer provide local news. Doyle says that could be catastrophic in the event of an emergency such as Hurricane Katrina.

"There's 42 stations that were in that Gulf Coast area," he says. "Only four stayed on the air during Katrina, and two of them were LPFM stations."

LPFM stations can provide a forum for local nonprofits, schools, churches and other organizations, according to Brandy Doyle, policy director for the Prometheus Radio Project, which helps community organizations apply for and build LPFM stations.

"It's really exciting that for the first time, we're going to see these stations in urban areas," she says, "because the density of population in these urban areas means that the three- to five-mile range of a low-power radio station is going to reach hundreds of thousands of people."

According to Doyle, who is no relation to Rep. Mike Doyle, LPFM stations around the country are already providing news and information to many non-English speaking communities.

"There's not much local information on the Internet in languages other than English, and even in the rest of the media you're lucky if there's a couple of Spanish language radio stations," she says.

Grassroots Radio

Building a low-power radio station is within the reach of many community groups, says Liz Humes, a board member of WRIR, an LPFM station in Richmond, Va., that is operated by volunteers.

"When we started we were able to build a fairly professional radio station out of recycled or discarded goods," Humes says. "Everything we've got was castaways, but still perfectly usable. In theory it's very green, what we do."

In a city with a population of 200,000, WRIR was able to secure an LPFM license because there were no interference issues in Richmond. But the October filing window for licenses will test the ability of grassroots groups in other cities to organize and build their own stations.

Humes thinks the effect these stations have on their communities is simple.

"We teach people how to create radio and we give them radio shows," she says. "That's what we do."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Keith Brand
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