Pirate Radio Goes Legit 

The FCC is poised to license community radio stations in the Bay Area for the first time, and the competition promises to be fierce.

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Hayes admits that he has no idea how many people listen to KDEE, but the studio phone rings steadily. During an hour-long interview, he received five calls and each time answered with a booming, "Good morning, family."

Yet that rising popularity doesn't directly translate into economic security for KDEE — or for any LPFM station. Unlike commercial radio stations, where a boost in listeners often converts into more ad sales, LPFM stations don't enjoy that luxury. FCC rules demand that LPFM stations be hosted and managed by nonprofits, ruling out opportunities for commercial ads or similar revenue streams.

Hayes is more interested, though, in talking about the role that the station plays in building community rather than making money. "I left Clear Channel," he explained, leaning forward, his voice gaining pitch and momentum. "I was just tired of it. You couldn't pay me enough to play the same old stuff. I'm a grown-ass man, and I had to listen to that crap."

Accordingly, his morning, drive-time, radio is called "Grown Folks Music," which is followed on Thursdays by the award-winning "Going Green Radio Hour," hosted by a DJ he calls "Enviro-Bro."

But economics are a reality, and an Achilles' heel for LPFM stations. The California Black Chamber of Commerce, like most nonprofits, relies on grants and donations, a revenue stream particularly susceptible to economic ups and downs; over the past two years, according to filed IRS returns, donations to the California Black Chamber of Commerce have fallen almost 50 percent. In 2010, the organization raised only $305,000, yet retained its $500,000 annual budget (which includes expenses beyond the radio station).

And, while KDEE's operating expenses may seem bare-bones, with only three full-time employees, the Sacramento station actually enjoys what seems like a princely budget when compared to other LPFM stations. LPFM proponents report that stations can be launched for as little as $10,000, and most LPFM stations don't have enough funds to pay staff. In nearby ag-town Davis, for example, is the aptly-named KDRT — and, like most LPFM stations, it's run by volunteers.

"From eight to eighty years old," asserted station manager Jeff Shaw. All told, about seventy volunteers staff the Davis radio station, working the front desk, cataloging recordings, and hosting various call-in shows that provide advice on everything from sex to soil conditions.

Shaw pointed out that, last year, KDRT put one person on the payroll, a sound engineer who spends dozens of hours each month recording local bands, as well as hosting a popular show that plays those live-recorded tracks, all for an annual salary of $2,000. "He certainly earns it!" exclaimed Shaw. The sound engineer's brother, Bill Buchanan, a retired journalist, also hosts a show for KDRT, a top-notch interview program that focuses on heated local issues like water rights and ballot measures; he provides that show for free, as a hobby.

In addition to the tight economic constraints in which LPFM stations must operate, they're also hamstrung by other FCC rules. Commercial radio stations treat them as unwanted step-siblings. Technically called a "secondary service," LPFM stations cannot interfere with any commercial broadcast. When Congress and the FCC hammered out rules for the first round of LPFM stations a decade ago, they were successfully petitioned by a bevy of existing, full-powered stations to place large buffer zones on the radio dial to protect existing signals from interference and static from the community radio stations. In particular, the group lobbying for these rules included an unlikely foe for community radio: National Public Radio.

What resulted was called the "third adjacent rule," perhaps the greatest constraint for LPFM stations. In the simplest terms, the rule said that LPFM stations could not be within three clicks on the dial from any full-power station. "The pie isn't growing any bigger," Shaw lamented, referring to the limited number of frequencies on the FM dial, and that the third adjacent rule effectively more than halved those available. "It is how we decide to slice it up."

The combination of the secondary service status and third adjacent rule proved to be a potent one-two punch against LPFM stations. If a commercial station moved into the area, it could bump a LPFM station from its frequency — which is exactly what happened to KDRT in Davis five years ago when KMJE, an "adult contemporary" station, decided to expand into Sacramento Valley and requested the very frequency — 101.5 FM — on which KDRT was broadcasting. The request threatened to knock KDRT off the dial and out of business.

Davis' mayor stepped up and declared a "Media Democracy Month," and several local bands held benefit concerts. Support and small donations poured in. On the studio door, there are still taped notes of support, including a lengthy letter explaining one man's $5 donation in support of KDRT's jug band hour. But all that community backing was to no avail. The commercial station was granted its license, and KDRT was pushed from its home on the dial. KDRT later found another radio frequency in the area where it could shoehorn its broadcast signal without interrupting any commercial broadcasts. The station now resides at 95.7.

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