The State of LPFM — Just Putting It On the Air Isn’t Enough

Yesterday Wired News published a short article on the current state of low-power FM. The author attempts to compare reality with the hopes for LPFM, noting that half of the 710 LPFM licenses are for Christian stations featuring “extremely conservative” programming.

It’s relatively fine for such a short article, but the author gives the most space to one example low-power station, which is facing several unique challenges, including funding problems and having a commercial station try to compete with it. I don’t want to sweep these stories under the carpet, but it’s problematic when this is the most prominent example station cited, because it leads the casual reader to believe that this station is emblematic of systemic problems with many low-power FM stations.

However, the station’s principal employee herself admits that her expectations weren’t realisitic, saying:

“I thought the money would flow in…. I was so idealistic, and so was sure that community radio was such a wonderful thing to have in Salida. But people aren’t pouring their money into the station.”

Honestly, those are sentiments that have launched and killed thousands of small businesses, non-profits and radio stations.

After almost fifteen years of non-commercial radio experience, I really get the impression that the average person kind of believes the Hollywood vision of a radio station — where a station, a DJ or a program goes on the air with something new and innovative, and then listeners instantly gravitate to it, willing to throw money and support behind it at the slightest sign of a threat.

Of course, radio industry veterans know this isn’t true, but they’re not typically the folks who get involved in community radio. For several years I gave a presentation on proposing a program and keeping it on air at every DJ training class at my local community station. Without fail, at every class there was at least one, if not several, guys (and they’ve all been men) there who were convinced that their show idea was the most original and innovative thing to every hit a radio, and that the listeners would just come flocking the moment their voice entered the mic.

But, by and large, these guys were disappointed when they actually got a show (if they even had the patience to make it that far), and saw that they were lucky if they got one phone call after begging for two hours.

Like it or not, listeners are more independent and critical we give them credit for.

On top of that, those of us with years in community radio have to remind our selves that what we do is so very different from the dominant commercial paradigm, that so many listeners don’t even know what to make of it. You mean, at one time of the day you play blues and later on you play dance music? Why can’t I tune in a just hear the music I like all day long like all the other stations?

Community radio is an educational medium in so many aspects. On top of trying to educate listeners about particular music, culture, news or ideas, we have to educate them and ourselves about a different kind of radio. It’s a kind of radio that makes different demands on the listener. All commercial radio demands is that you tune in and listen to their ads (and then maybe buy stuff) — the program is secondary, and it’s only bait to make you sit through commercials.

Community radio doesn’t ask listeners to tune in and buy, it asks them to tune in and listen, and open up their minds a little, maybe even challenge themselves a little to tolerate or even like something they didn’t expect to hear.

But even getting listeners to try this more than once requires educating the community at large about this different kind of radio, and presenting them with reasons and incentives to give it a try. Some folks will like it instantly, whereas others will have to get used to it.

So, the challenges of this one station do represent the type of challenges that face all community radio stations. But the naivete of thinking “build it and they will come,” is not necessarily representative, nor is it realistic.

Soon, I will post more about the low-power station that will be going on the air here in Champaign-Urbana. I think it’s an interesting project because we’re viewing it as an experiment, since we already have one full-power community station. And, instead of being naive about the limits of a low-power signal, we’re trying to embrace them, and the low cost of LPFM, and see it as an opportunity to take risks that would be more risky with 10,000 watt station.