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FCC Opens FM Airwaves For Nonprofits

By Patrick Sullivan - August 30, 2013

Walk down a street in any city in south King County, about 10 miles south of Seattle, Wash., and you’re liable to hear conversations carried on in Somali, Spanish, Tagalog or Vietnamese. OneAmerica, an immigrant advocacy organization based in Seattle, has been trying to solve the challenge of disseminating information to this diverse group of immigrants and refugees for years.

Its solution: A low-powered FM (LPFM) station.

“One of the challenges in organizing in that area is that there aren’t established (ethnic) community centers like there are in Seattle,” said Rahwa Habte, an organizer for OneAmerica. “We’re going out to small businesses, apartment complexes, knocking on people’s doors and trying to make a one-to-one connection. When you’re working on a campaign, it’s difficult to do and time consuming.”

OneAmerica has applied for a LPFM station license. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is preparing to open an application window for LPFM licenses starting Oct. 15, to run through Halloween. It will be the first time an application window has been opened since 2000.

With an LPFM station, nonprofits can take to the airwaves to recruit volunteers and financial support, organize events and tell stories that don’t make it to commercial media. “It’s a great way to amplify the mission of your nonprofit,” said Sabrina Roach of Brown Paper Tickets (BPT) in Seattle. Roach is the point person, called a Doer, for the for-profit ticket reseller’s Make Radio project, which is advocating for and promoting this initiative.

An LPFM station is one that broadcasts at 100 watts or less, which translates to a range of three to five miles. According to the FCC, there are 797 LPFM stations in the United States. A representative from the FCC said there is no set number of licenses to be granted during this application window. “The FM dial is already quite crowded with commercial radio,” said Roach. “Unless the FCC were to dramatically alter their approach to radio licensing, there won’t be another chance like this in urban areas.”

Habte said OneAmerica plans on a three- to six-hour block of news in different languages as the cornerstone of its programming. The organization has Somali, Spanish and English speakers, and will be going to community volunteers to get more language capabilities. It also plans to train community volunteers in radio broadcasting in order to flesh out the station’s programming.

“The idea would be to get information out about public services,” said Habte. “We want city departments, school districts and nonprofits to use the station to get information out. We want to provide media training to folks in the community so a lot of people get trained to produce content for radio and can broadcast in their own language. We also want to create our own content and broadcast about things we’re up to.”

Requirements for a license are few; according to the FCC, an organization must be registered as a nonprofit with the appropriate state agency, and it has to show local ties and provide local service. Programming must be educational, “but the FCC is really broad in what education means,” said Julia Wierski, director of development and communications for Prometheus Radio Project in Philadelphia.

“The FCC doesn’t judge educational missions or determine licensing by how strong or weak your mission is,” said Wierski. “The FCC is not policing content in that way. You could be educating people on the history of Star Wars.”

Nonprofits wanting a license should start the application now, as it can take up to two months to complete. Depending upon how many commercial stations are in the broadcast area, nonprofits might need to secure the assistance of a radio engineer to help determine overlapping coverage. Prometheus has developed a tool, radiospark.org, that can determine if you’ll need a waiver.

“Any kind of nonprofit can apply, but I think that nonprofits with a message with a specific geographic focus might be a better fit than others,” said Roach. “Nonprofits in the Seattle area that are applying either want to bring people from that community into their station space or want to reach out to a certain geographic area. Nonprofits with a mission that’s more broad, it would work for them if they have a niche that they would be focusing on, topic-wise. An organization like OneAmerica wants to put a station in south King County because they want to specifically reach immigrant families in those areas and engage them in programmatic work.”

Though the application has no fee, setup costs could range from $20,000 to $30,000. Prometheus and BPT both have resources for identifying sources for funding. Once you’ve submitted your application and been granted a license, you’ll have 18 months to get up and running. Habte is anticipating up to $50,000 in initial costs, and said her organization hasn’t estimated ongoing costs yet.

OneAmerica is taking a three-tiered approach to programming development, said Habte. It is pulling together an advisory board that will help determine initial programming and station governance. “Then it’s getting information out to folks in the community,” said Habte. “If we had a station, what would they want?” The third tier will be made up of OneAmerica’s base: “Somalis, Latinos, others we’ve been working with for a while, and they’ll help determine OneAmerica’s programming,” Habte said.

Habte said without the help of BPT and Prometheus, OneAmerica wouldn’t have known where to begin. “It really has helped because there’s no one person here dedicated to establishing radio stations,” she said. “We’re not a media organization, we’re a nonprofit whose mission is to build power in immigrant communities, and we can see how we can do that with radio. Beyond that, we have absolutely no idea. It’s been a huge learning curve, and it’s great to have someone to hold our hand and guide us through the process.”  NPT

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