The little station that could

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

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4 thoughts on “The little station that could

  1. lance

    I found it very odd that you guys thought you could convince the FCC to help. Does this mean that where WPVM signal is weak (like right outside the station) there is essentially no other options to explore? If I could listen (on a radio) to the station, I think I-and doubtless many others- would do a lot more in terms of volunteering and donating. As much as I like the idea of a community radio, and non-corporate programming, your competition on the internet is overwhelming.

  2. johhny


    I dont think the transmitter is near the station. For example, WNCW’s transmitter is located on Clingman peak, even though the station is in Spindale.

    I receive WPVM in west asheville, and it has been one of my favorite aspects of my recent move.

  3. Rob Close

    I have nothing good to say about the FCC. It’s times like this I wish Free Radio Asheville were still around – illegal or not, they kept some focus on this free speech controversy. And with cheap homemade equipment and common sense, there was never any problems stepping on the toes of other nearby frequencies.

    So the idea that there aren’t enough #’s on the dial – Garbage, the FCC just let’s them out slooowly. If this federal administration wanted there to be true community voices, this 3 watts sham wouldn’t be so. But I’m glad they’re still trying, go PVM!

  4. Where's the engineer?

    Why were all of these lessons so hard-learned with a paid radio engineer on the task?

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