[JPL] Low-Power FM Radio to Gain Space on the Dial

Jazz Promo Services jazzpromo at earthlink.net
Wed Jan 26 12:31:23 EST 2011


http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/arts/25radio.html

Low-Power FM Radio to Gain Space on the Dial

By BRIAN STELTER

OPELOUSAS, La. ‹ When John Freeman turned on his car radio one recent day
and tuned to KOCZ, the voice he heard was a 2-year-old girl¹s.

It belonged to Nyla Belton, the daughter of the afternoon D.J., Craig
Belton. She¹s better known on the air as ³D.J. Scribble² and sometimes
speaks up between songs.

Mr. Freeman, the station¹s executive director, chuckled and pointed to the
radio. ³That¹s what¹s special about low-power FM,² he said.

KOCZ¹s 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 ³still get their news and culture over the broadcast
dial,² said Hannah Sassaman, a longtime advocate of community radio. For Ms.
Sassaman and others, this month¹s bill signing was the culmination of 10
years of lobbying for more access to the airwaves. ³I 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,² 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.

³It helps promote that culture ‹ and that¹s something that¹s very
significant for the African-American community here,² said Mr. Freeman, who
slyly added that he thought commercial stations had started playing more
zydeco since KOCZ started broadcasting in 2002. ³They know that we make them
better,² he said.

Mr. Freeman describes KOCZ as ³a mission.² A retired executive for Bell
South, he calls himself a ³corporate guy² 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.

³Politically, some people don¹t talk to other people,² Ms. Charles said.
³But we talk to everybody. We¹re a bridge sometimes.²

Each show depends on the underwriting of local sponsors like funeral homes
and beauty salons. ³Without them, we¹d be pretty much shut down,² 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 isn¹t 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 ³big win² for radio listeners.

³Low-power FM stations are small, but they make a giant contribution to
local community programming,² 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.

³She was able to get her dog back the next day,² said Helen Pickney, the
station manager, still marveling at the story.

KOCZ doesn¹t 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.




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