Four years ago, if you had been scanning the Asheville airwaves, you might have discovered a new FM station at the right end of your dial. Packed in between corporate country and commercial classic rock was noncommercial community radio. Unpolished, repetitive and automated, the only live program was in Spanish. If you tried to pick it up on your car radio, you were subjected to bizarre competition between this small station and a large classic-rock station from over 100 miles away. The station, WPVM, was one of the new low-power FM stations with a legit Federal Communications Commission license.
A bit of history: Prior to the creation of the Federal Radio Commission in 1927, anyone who wanted a broadcast license could have one. Then, drastic reallocations eliminated many low-powered, independent stations. The FCC (which also regulates the television and telecommunications spectrum) replaced FRC in 1934, and by the 1940s, corporate-chain stations had gotten so large there were laws to limit the number of licenses held by one entity. In 1978, the FCC stopped issuing low-watt licenses altogether—those once held by small, community-radio stations.
Corporate programming became predictable and boring: most music produced by the largest labels and designed to create the largest profits for stockholders; few actual, live, local DJs; talk radio mostly syndicated. Asheville has only one daily, locally produced talk show.
Then, in 2000, the FCC announced it would once again award low-power licenses. Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN)—working with community members—navigated the labyrinthine application path to be awarded 103.5 FM for its frequency in 2003.
It seemed like a great victory. An engineer was hired, funds were raised, equipment was ordered. Another station already inhabited the 103.5 frequency, but it was assumed that it would not be a major problem. In October of 2004 WPVM, the Progressive Voice of the Mountains, went on the air.
At that point we realized that the signal was not adequate to cover Buncombe County. Questions started pouring in: Why’s the signal weak? When will you fix it?
We’ve learned a lot in these last four years, such as when a transmitter is placed at a high elevation, the FCC will lower the [allowed] broadcasting wattage. WPVM has a 100-watt license but can only broadcast at three watts—only slightly higher than the FCC-approved signal of your garage-door opener.
We learned that there are very few frequencies available in this area, learned about frequency speculators, and learned the FCC laws. We made friends, wrote letters, called, hoped. And we learned an old lesson: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. We thought that a signal fix was right around the corner, but all options have fallen through.
Meanwhile, programming blossomed. We have 80 volunteers, 30 locally produced music and news programs, 20 syndicated programs, and local DJs with years of experience under their belts. You can listen, see a play list or check on community news online. This little three-watt station has become the kind of station that supports the local community by informing and entertaining with local talent.
We are still exploring pathways. We still write letters and call, and we still hope. We know that the signal will get fixed, because we won’t give up. But we need you to not give up either.
Tune in, tell your friends, volunteer, underwrite, and donate during the current fund drive. Keep believing. Keep community radio alive.
— Gillian Coats