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An LPFM Dream in the Making

By Diane Chiddister
January 25, 2001
Yellow Springs News

Pastor John Freeman of Central Chapel A.M.E. Church envisions community radio as a tool for community-building, for bringing together the diverse cultures of Yellow Springs.

"This station can serve as a vehicle to reach out to everyone in town, rich and poor, black and white, church and nonchurch," he said. "The better we understand each other, the better we'll get along."

Yellow Springs School Superintendent Tony Armocida envisions community radio as an opportunity for Yellow Springs students.

"We've had a tradition here of community experience," said Armocida, who would like to see student-produced radio programs, with students guided by knowledgeable adults. "We need to broaden the scope of educational opportunities beyond the actual school."

These visions have led these men and their organizations, along with four other local groups, to form a coalition with the organizers of Yellow Springs Community Radio, Inc. (YSCRI) in an effort to create a local low-watt radio station. And, after YSCRI organizers this week successfully completed an application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), those visions moved closer to becoming reality.

"It was now or never," said YSCRI organizer Ellen Levy of the brief window of opportunity the FCC provided for applications for 100-watt stations. Organizers have finished the last lap of a heart-breaking, high-pressure race to apply for a frequency by successfully meeting all conditions by the deadline, January 16th�nd. Within two to three months, they'll find out if the FCC approves their application, and if their dream of community radio in Yellow Springs will come true.

"It's been a long, hard struggle," said Levy of the more than two years organizers have spent in their attempt to create community radio.

The dream began in the summer of 1998, when no local radio station covered the dedication of the Yellow Springs Women's Park, the second such park in the country. That oversight crystallized in some villagers a growing awareness that Yellow Springs lacked true community radio.

"There was the conception," said Levy, who, like most of the other YSCRI organizers, worked as a WYSO volunteer in the 1970s and '80s, "that WYSO wasn't responsive to the needs of the community any more."

While YSCRI organizers remain supportive of WYSO, they believed that the station's growing reliance on national programming, such as National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," meant not only a loss of local coverage, but also a loss of the early WYSO spontaneity and quirky charm.

"Back then, listening to WYSO was like being in someone's living room and having that person say, 'Hey, listen to this,'" Levy said. "Each person's personality came through."

Seeking to revive some of that spontaneity, charm and focus on local issues, organizers began drumming up support for their vision, sponsoring fundraisers to raise necessary cash for the transmitter and studio equipment. Besides Levy, ground-floor organizers were Doug Jansen, Gene Lohman, Robert Parks, Israel Almanzar, Chuck Valley, Henry Pack and Sean Wolf Hill, with help from many others.

Hopes ran high when, in January 2000, the FCC announced that it was opening up third frequencies-previously unused radio frequencies located close to those of already existing radio stations-for the use of low-watt stations. Because two third-frequency locations were available in this area, things looked good for YSCRI.

But those hopes were dashed in December when, after extensive lobbying by the National Association of Broadcasters, the Congress passed bills forbidding the use of third frequencies by the low-watt stations. Both commercial and public radio stations had lobbied for the bill, claiming that low-watt stations using frequencies so close to their own would cause technical interference.

Not so, YSCRI organizers and other micro-radio supporters insist. Interference comes only from stations located close to the outermost reaches of a radio station's frequency, where the reception is weakest-in the case of WYSO, according to Levy, interference might come from new stations in Richmond, Indiana, or Sidney, Ohio, but not from a low-watt station in Yellow Springs.

Finding out in mid-December that the only two open local frequencies were no longer available, YSCRI organizers almost lost hope. The FCC had opened a single, tiny window for applications for non-third frequency low-watt stations, January 16th�nd, but the group had no frequency to file for. Before giving up, they made a last-ditch appeal to the Micro Radio Implementation Project, an Oregon-based group focused on helping micro-size stations get started.

On December 29th of this year, an engineer from the micro radio project contacted YSCRI organizers with good news and bad news. The good news was that he found an available free-standing frequency for a low-watt station in this area. The bad news was, in order to file in the January window, organizers had to already have a site for their radio tower.

"Basically, we had about two weeks to get everything together," Levy said. "We were scrambling."

Because the radio tower needed to be located northwest of the village, Levy and Jansen began driving up and down country roads in that area, noting addresses of potential sites. But they had no way to tell who lived at what address. When Levy sought help, Police Chief Jim Miller solved the problem. Miller's wife, Jan, a realtor, had a database for local addresses, which she offered for the organizers' use.

"Basically, I had to cold-call people and tell them we needed a place to stick our antenna," says Levy. "It was exhausting."

Finally, though, she found a sympathetic property owner.

But there were more hurdles to jump. A barn on the property might present a problem, and the Oregon engineer insisted that the barn's height be measured. But how to measure a barn? With the help of the Miami Township Fire-Rescue, Levy did so, on a cold, snowy day. On the bright side, she said, "I got to ride in a fire truck."

As well as finding a site for the tower, YSCRI organizers also needed to quickly build a coalition of community groups who could offer support. Advised by the Oregon group that such a coalition would enhance their chances of winning FCC approval, organizers approached churches, schools and other organizations. Six groups signed on-besides the Central Chapel A.M.E. Church and the Yellow Springs public schools, the Yellow Springs Library Association, the Greene County Library system, the Unitarians and the Yellow Springs Methodist Church. Letters of endorsement were also received from the Yellow Springs Arts Council, Women, Inc. and a local labor union.

The applications for all coalition groups had to be made separately and had to be sent electronically, so Levy spent ten to 12 hours a day last week online at her computer, frantically finishing the process. Finally, in the nick of time, she did so.

Summing it up in an understatement, she said, "It's been very hectic."

Organizers expect to receive the FCC response in two to three months. In the meantime, they're moving ahead. Money needs to be raised for studio equipment and a transmitter, and they're planning a fundraising dance on February 10th at the Bryan Community Center gym. Besides cash, organizers, understandably exhausted by the application process, need more people to help, especially people interested in fundraising, engineering and programming.

Most of all, YSCRI organizers want villagers to dream of new ways to use community radio.

Besides his interest in community-building, Pastor Freeman would like to see programs on spirituals, gospel music and jazz, as well as shows focused on local issues. The Library Association has expressed interest in presenting book reviews, and local church services or school events could be programmed.

"We've had people show interest in doing a call-in home improvement show, in shows on pet care, and in opera, classical music, and jazz," said Doug Jansen, who has a special interest in presenting local labor news, especially the perspective of organized labor. He'd also like to revisit programming he did at WYSO in the '70s and '80s, older country music like western swing, honky tonk, rockabilly, and bluegrass, "music you seldom hear on mainstream programming."

Overall, said Ellen Levy, "We want to be Yellow Springs radio."

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