Thursday, February 03, 2011

Lots About Watts

Happy February.

Because I've had an affinity for radio nearly all of my life, I pay attention to those things that keep broadcast radio headed in what I consider the correct direction - connected and responsive to the listener, accountable to the public interest, a beacon for connecting a community together instead of creating divisiveness.

There are a few things happening in the arena of non-commercial radio - mostly the left side of the FM dial - that may stand to enhance the diversity and viability of this resource in Grand Junction and across the country.

Watts Low

The most significant development for the majority of the country's population was the passage of the Local Community Radio Act, signed into law by President Obama last month. The real impact of this law is on the 50 largest media markets, where the expansion of low power FM stations has been hampered by regulations that prevent the use of adjacent frequencies at closer channel spacing.

Spearheaded largely through the efforts of the Prometheus Radio Project and others, this loosening of channel spacing will facilitate the establishment of community radio stations that serve more specific geographical areas and populations.

You'd be surprised with how many FM radio stations are licensed in the Grand Junction area. There are a lot of low power stations here - many are broadcasting Christian programming - but only one station is licensed as a Low Power FM station. This has a lot to do with the mountains that surround us, and the coverage that a station can get with a lower power transmitter placed at a higher altitude.

For example, the aforementioned "Low Power" station, located at the Colorado State Building downtown, has a licensed output of 100 watts, but their transmitter is actually below the average terrain of the area. This station, at 106.7 FM, transmits highway information and local National Weather Service broadcasts.

Contrast this with KAFM Community Radio, licensed at only 16 watts, but with their transmitter located at the radio and TV "antenna farm" on Black Ridge, west of town above the Colorado National Monument and about 2,000 feet above the valley floor. KAFM's signal actually has a much greater coverage footprint than the much more powerful signal coming from the state building. Unfortunately, this signal does not penetrate structures or terrain features well, resulting in "dead spots" caused by both terrain and the density of many buildings in the valley.

Watts Up

As a volunteer at KAFM since it's beginnings, I'm aware of and have been supportive of their ongoing efforts to improve signal strength and in-building coverage. The FCC recently approved a power increase for KAFM from 16 to 300 watts. This will help fill the existing coverage gaps, and allow listeners to tune in without significant issues across the valley, and as far south as Delta.

The Watts Up capital campaign is an effort to put the new FCC authorization to work, with not only a new transmitter and tower, but also improvements to the station's studios and physical plant in Downtown GJ. The challenges of fundraising in the current economic climate have been compounded by a recent change in administration at the station, with some accompanying discontent that has caused departures of both paid and volunteer staff.

Things feel like they're beginning to stabilize a bit, but it's still awfully quiet there some days. Perhaps down the road some of these creative folk may decide that their passion for community-based media trumps the personalities involved. Some that have moved on will stay moved on - like me in about a month.

In any event, KAFM needs community support, in both dollars and sweat equity, to keep the mission and the beauty of community media alive in Grand Junction. Please consider supporting the capital campaign, or during the upcoming Spring Fund Drive in mid-March. Better yet, contribute your time and expertise to the station as a volunteer.

Watts Preserved

A broadcast radio license is a valuable commodity, even in the non-commercial, not-for-profit arena. Back in Pittsburgh, the pending sale of a popular non-commercial radio station operated by Duquesne University prompted concerns from the staff and community media advocates that the frequency might end up in commercial hands.

Luckily, a partnership between community station WYEP and a Boulder-based non-profit has been named the successful bidder for the license of WDUQ. This new partnership is now in the process of polling the community for input about how programming should change..or not.
WDUQ's popular jazz music programming will likely remain one of the benchmarks of the station's presence in the area.

I mention Pittsburgh because of two trends that are applicable to that area that aren't in Grand Junction. One is the impact of the Local Community Radio Act on Pittsburgh as a major media market. It will be interesting to see what grassroots efforts pop up. Another factor is the presence of HD Radio, where many stations, commercial and non-profit, transmit a digital signal with multiple channels of programming. WDUQ, for example, dedicates one digital channel to the BBC World Service, 24 hours a day. Once I get settled there, I hope to be able to get involved with community radio at some level.

There are many HD-equipped stations on the Front Range, along with a few public stations in southwest Colorado, but not a single broadcast outlet in Grand Junction offers HD Radio. Someone who's sticking around ought to ask why.

Watts Crazy

Low Power stations can and should be representative of a local community or segment of a community, and I would hope that those who obtain licenses through the new law will use it to enhance the experience of living in a society where free expression and discourse is respected and embraced.

Such was not the case last month in Greeley. A local school board member who also owns a low power FM station and a daily newspaper in that area came under fire for airing editorials critical of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and was the subject of a restraining order for leaving threats on the voice mail of the manager of a competing radio station.

This kind of discourse and disagreement, aside from the threats, is what makes America a great place. It's not really surprising that stations with a more conservative approach to things will pop up with low-power FM licenses, especially those who wish to emulate what they hear on AM talk radio. Hey, free speech is for extremists, too.

Watts Real and Relevant

Regardless of the types of discourse, entertainment and diversion, the option is ours as a people to listen or watch what we choose, and turn off that which we don't care much for. In this context, I am very thankful for the Internet, which allows me and thousands of others around the U.S. to enjoy the coverage of the uprising in Egypt from Al Jazeera English. Most American cable companies and satellite providers do not carry this English-language channel of the venerable, Qatar-based news service, and according to at least one blog that's more than just a little hypocritical. Quoting a new anchor on the network:
We're not entirely blocked, but we're a "taboo" to some crucial decision-makers in the TV business, that's the problem...Given the poisonous smear against us over the years, are cable providers hesitant to carry us? Yes. That's where we hope that US citizens like yourself can lobby hard to give us the choice. I'm sure amid thousands of channels that include those dedicated to Kim Kardashian, shopping addictions, evangelism, hardcore porn, NFL and local news channels where the top story is always the traffic congestion, that the land of the free can find a spot for us!
For me as a little boy growing up, radio was a comforting voice late at night in the dark. As I grew, I realized the continued power of this now seemingly simple and antiquated medium to inform, enlighten, and entertain. Even in the wee hours, slowly manipulating the tuning dial on a shortwave to try to pull in the weakest vestige of Radio Prague, or today listening to the folksy ruminations of Garrison Keillor, there's fascination, escapism, and life and death before your very ears. Think this stuff isn't important? Ask the folks in Egypt or Tunisia.

Have a great day.

1 comment:

dean0 said...

Well I enjoyed my short stint as a programmer at KAFM. However I don't think that the management appreciated the diversity that I provided during my program early every other Sunday morning. I played Christian bluegrass and A Capella music. The management decided to cut my program from three hours to two hours, citing a "need" to add a program of Guatemalan music to the mix on Sunday afternoons. There being slight difference between the Spanish music program and the proposed Guatemalan music. My program had a greater difference than anything else played on KAFM, also not available on any other radio station in town.

I worked with my Church and received a partial stipend to which I added several hundred $ to so that we could award KAFM with $1,000 to sponsor my program. However even though the station took my money they never put the "read" on the schedule. So we got burned in that endeavor. Jon Rizzo proclaimed to me on one occasion that he thought I should be playing a different "brand" of Christian music, but later said he would replace my program with the "Same" sort of program. (which he did not)

For the most part I enjoyed volunteering for different projects at the building. I was always treated with respect by those in charge except Jon whom I feel lied to me.