Strategic air command

“Word is spreading like wildfire; people are really rallying around this.”

— Wally Bowen, Mountain Area Information Network

Like many cities nationwide, Asheville has had its airwaves dominated by broadcast giant Clear Channel Communications, leaving little room for locally produced, alternative programming.

That could change this summer, when two new low-power FM stations come online.

Low-power FM licenses have been issued to two local nonprofits — the Mountain Area Information Network and the Empowerment Resource Center. Both stations expect to be on the air by July, featuring local programming and no commercial advertising (though there will be public-radio-style sponsorships).

Low-power FM is the new kid on the radio block, established by the Federal Communications Commission in January 2000 after years of pressure by radio activists and, later, members of Congress. The licenses allow nonprofit organizations to run 100-watt radio stations — typically with a range of 5-7 miles from the tower — on unused portions of the dial. Both MAIN and the ERC submitted applications in June of 2001; they’re among the first groups in the state to be awarded licenses.

John R. Hayes, president/CEO of the Empowerment Resource Center, says his group’s new station, WRES (100.7 FM), will target underserved communities, delivering a mix of self-help information and gospel, R&B and hip-hop sounds not currently available on Asheville’s airwaves (see “Serving the African-American community”).

“We will be airing programming that deals with empowering people of low wealth with opportunities,” promises Hayes, who’s also president of the Asheville chapter of the NAACP. “This is a rich area, and there is enough wealth for everybody. It’s about getting the information out.”

Wally Bowen, executive director of MAIN, says interest has grown rapidly since his group was awarded a license in late December. Committees have been formed, and discussions about programming have begun.

“Word is spreading like wildfire,” he reports, adding, “People are really rallying around this.”

The new station, which will broadcast at 103.5 FM under the call letters WPVM (Progressive Voice of the Mountains), will meet a need for progressive radio in Asheville, notes Bowen.

A diversity of voices

Nationally, conservative viewpoints have dominated AM talk radio in recent years. Personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity have profited from a decision by the Reagan-era Federal Communications Commission to scrap the fairness doctrine, which had required stations to represent opposing sides of controversial issues.

Hoping to make a dent in conservative radio’s dominance, Democratic Party contributors/venture capitalists Sheldon and Anita Drobny have launched an effort to buy radio stations that will broadcast liberal voices.

WPVM, notes Bowen, will have a similar mission, albeit with local broadcasters and free, nationally syndicated content, such as the popular Pacifica Radio program Democracy Now with Amy Goodman, and Counterspin, a project of the group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.

“There’s been such a vacuum with liberal radio in terms of local voices and people really having access to an alternative station,” Bowen laments. Interest in MAIN’s new station, he notes, “is not surprising, given the nature of our community. There’s a lot of talent here.”

Although the station’s long-term goal is to air mostly locally produced programming, initially it will supplement eight hours of local shows with nationally syndicated content, enabling WPVM to broadcast 12 hours a day, as required by the FCC.

Eventually, says Bowen, WPVM plans to be on-air 24-hours a day, though computers will probably replace human disc jockeys some of the time. And though the station is still searching for office space in downtown Asheville and may not be fully up and running until later in the summer, it hopes to broadcast a May 3 visit to Asheville by the Rolling Thunder Downhome Democracy Tour.

Besides airing syndicated content not widely heard on radio, WPVM will also produce local shows that don’t adhere to the high-production values of commercial and large nonprofit radio stations.

“Our goal is not to provide slick, overproduced programming to maximize audience share in a particular demographic niche,” he explains. “Our goal is to provide the kind of news and information for a window on the cultural world that’s truly representative of the diverse community and world that we live in.”

This approach, asserts Bowen, will hold some surprises for listeners.

“I think people will be struck by the diversity of voices and ideas,” he predicts.

Urban sounds with a purpose

WRES, says Hayes, will use an urban format (common in areas with large minority populations) to advance the nonprofit’s goals. According to an ERC brochure, these include “empower[ing] people to achieve homeownership, increase job readiness, promote entrepreneurship, and improve the overall quality of health and life of people of color and low-wealth communities.”

Getting information out is vital, stresses Hayes.

“People of low wealth many times would love to participate in things, but by the time they get home [from work] they can’t,” he explains. “We want to be the place they can come to so they can navigate the system.”

To assist working parents, for example, Hayes said the station could announce a PTA meeting occurring that night, give out a number to call for child care, and even work with the school to help bring future meetings to the community, perhaps even broadcasting them.

The station’s play list, reports Hayes, will change throughout the day, beginning with a gospel format, then shifting to “midstream” music, such as Lou Rawls and other easy-listening R&B.

In the afternoons, the station will broadcast Motown and other lively music; evenings will be reserved for jazz. Hip-hop (Hayes makes it clear that they will air the “beat without the profanity”) will be featured on Saturdays.

Both stations have heard from a variety of interested volunteers, including folks with prior radio experience as well as newcomers eager to learn.

The combination of low-power FM stations’ relatively weak signal strength (99.9 KISS-FM has 100,000 watts of power, compared to MAIN’s and the ERC’s 100 watts) and the challenges of Asheville’s mountainous terrain will limit each station’s range.

According to Asheville-based radio engineer Tim Warner, who serves as a consultant to both low-power stations, MAIN’s signal will be strongest in West Asheville, Fletcher, Arden, most of Fairview and downtown Asheville. The Beaucatcher Ridge and Town Mountain will create what’s called “shadowing” over Charlotte Street, Merrimon Avenue and other areas, making it harder to pick up the signal there.

Although WRES won’t reach outlying areas, its signal will be stronger in downtown Asheville and the immediate surrounding area. Both stations have looked into installing translators to bring their signal to other parts of Asheville, as well as Black Mountain and Weaverville.

Financing is a major concern for both fledgling stations. The ERC will have assistance from partner nonprofits and government organizations (including the Affordable Housing Coalition, Blue Ridge Mental Health and the Buncombe County Department of Social Services) and grants for initial funding. MAIN, however, is depending on grants and a few major donations to get its station off the ground.

Both groups will also rely on more traditional kinds funding strategies, such as program sponsorships and fund-raising drives. Because they’re nonprofits, they’re subject to the same rules governing public radio and other nonprofit stations, including restrictions on advertising.

Bowen said the new low-power FM licenses will return broadcasters

“In 1934, we lost the public airwaves, and here it is almost 70 years later, we finally reclaim one small sliver,” notes Bowen. “LPFM is just a first step in what I hope is a trend toward American citizens reclaiming their birthright to free speech and free press and free association via broadcast technologies.”

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