Twenty years ago, a Minneapolis guy named Alan Freed found himself at war with the Federal Communications Commission, the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio over dance music he was pumping out of his Loring Park apartment.
“Beat Radio” as he called it, was Freed’s attempt to exploit what seemed to him to be an opening in FCC regulations permitting low power FM operations like his — using barely 25 watts of power — to broadcast a signal over a roughly 5-mile radius.
But as Freed quickly found out, the powers that be in the American radio industry had no interest in enabling any kind of encroachment on their dominance of the airwaves in major markets like the Twin Cities. Freed’s equipment was confiscated, and he began a long battle through the courts to assert his claim that low power FM radio (aka LPFM), was not only not a threat to high-powered broadcasters — the NAB and NPR complained the piddly stations caused interference with their signals — but that radio like what he was offering was closer to the ideal of community service, and community expression, than giant conglomerates beaming the same homogenizing playlists into every city of the country.
Freed’s long struggle, in conjunction with other so-called “pirates” around the U.S., has born fruit in a re-energizing of the LPFM concept here in the Twin Cities with 94.1 WFNU (Frogtown Community Radio) powering up last weekend. A classic community format, the station, with a studio in the Center for Hmong Arts and Talents and an antenna a couple miles east at Dale and University, WFNU joins three other local, nonprofit operations either up and running or on the verge since 2010 legislation in reopened the doors to LPFMs.
Station manager Julie Censullo says the Frogtown venture has been live-streaming since 2015 and slogging its way through the permitting/fundraising process until this year. “We crowdsourced $8,000 of the $10,000 or so we needed to get the transmission equipment together. And with the help of the Prometheus Radio Project [in Philadelphia], which was so valuable every step of the way, we’ve got it installed, had staff training and as of Sunday we’re on the air!”
Focus on immediate Frogtown area
Programming is very much in the vein of longstanding 90.3 (106.7 in West St. Paul) KFAI-FM, only with a tighter focus on the immediate Frogtown area. The station’s 100 watts gives it a reach, “Up to County Rd. B, down to Highland, downtown St. Paul, West St. Paul,” said Censullo, “and we’ve had people tell us they’ve been able to get it into Northeast in Minneapolis.”
Among the 20 or so regular hosts is Karen J. Larson, whose “Living Loud With Karen J” was touting a debate between DFL primary opponents Rashad Turner of Black Lives Matter and incumbent Rena Moran. Philip Gracia is another, with “The Midday Escape.”
Censullo is pretty well prepared for the inevitable question, “Who listens to radio anymore? Last I heard it was dying.”
“Well, as you’ll notice when you look at where low power is starting up, with [104.7] WEQY in Dayton’s Bluff, [101.7] KALY in the Somali neighborhood in Minneapolis, and another that isn’t on the air yet over on the south side [KRSM 98.9 in Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood], they’re all based in communities of color and low income [neighborhoods]. Here in Frogtown, 28 percent of our residents are foreign born, and one of the problems they have is controlling their own narrative, which so often with coverage from big media involves just stories of crime and poverty.
“Beyond that, any study you see tells you radio isn’t dying. Even in the age of the smartphone, radio remains more accessible and less expensive than just about any other form of media. It can play in your car and in businesses you visit without the listener being actively engaged. Even today, with experts saying everyone has to adapt to what young white kids are doing on their phones, 93 percent of adults in the United States engage with FM radio at some point in a month.”
On a roll, she added, “When I hear people say ‘radio is dying,’ what they really mean is that the big companies are playing the same music and running the same news. So it’s no wonder they ask, ‘Who wants to listen to that?’ ”
’96 Telecommunications Act
You won’t get much disagreement on the homogenization of news and entertainment coming from established broadcasters. The now infamous (to critics) Telecommunications Act of 1996 — a kind of Citizens United for media — was signed into law by Bill Clinton and set off a tidal wave of consolidation across the country with giants like Clear Channel (now known as iHeartMedia) eventually swallowing up over 1,200 once local stations, few if any of which provided more localized service to their communities than prior to their absorption.
Will Floyd is the technical director for the aforementioned Prometheus Radio Project out of Philadelphia. The 27-year-old New Jersey native came on board in 2012, but the Project has been around since the days of Alan Freed’s fight over Beat Radio.
His abridged version of the long fight for LPFM begins with how, circa Beat Radio, “it was basically impossible to get a low power license.”
The system was, to use a currently popular descriptor, rigged, by the most powerful media interests to prohibit incursions of any kind, no matter how modest. (What few low power licenses were granted were mainly to lightly populated rural areas of no interest to companies like Clear Channel.)
Minimal progress in changing the game was slapped back yet again in 2001 with the collaboration of the NAB and NPR. That required another decade of advocacy, lobbying and litigation, which produced the Local Community Radio Act of 2010. The law took practical effect in 2013 and set off the latest round of permit applications.
“In round numbers,” says Floyd, “there were 800 applications from the 2000 period and another from the 2010 legislation, with still another 1,000 out there with permits trying to raise money to qualify for an actual low power FM license.” (Here’s a 1999 Mother Jones piece about LPFM mentioning the Alan Freed fight.)
Many have progressive bent
Partisans will be quick to note that many, though far from all, of the low power stations have a distinctly progressive political bent. That, as Censullo noted, is because communities of low-income and color have a unique interest in making, you know, progress.
“Formats around the country really do run the gamut,” says Floyd. “There are a lot of arts nonprofits. There’s just about every kind of music you can think of. But here at Prometheus we tend to support those with progressive formats. That’s where we put our energy.”
Prometheus was, say both Censullo and Floyd, a kind of one-stop shopping for WFNU, providing guidance through the application phase, budgeting, offering direction on where to buy equipment, installation and training. Floyd himself was in town last week, wiring and testing.
Censullo and her team have confidence that WFNU will be supported by the Frogtown community, via grants and underwriting (no commercials are allowed). But as you can imagine, the mortality rate for modest operations like low power FM is high.
“Yeah, it’s probably about 1,020 percent,” says Floyd. “But a significant number of those have been one-person operations run by some guy out of his basement. So if he gets sick, moves away or gets bored with it, it’s all over. [Unlike full power licenses, low power FM licenses cannot be sold or transferred except under rigorously defined conditions]. WFNU and the others in Minnesota have a lot more going for them than that.”