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.


The radio station is little more than a back office tucked into a strip mall on the outskirts of Sacramento, just past a lonely Home Depot and two different Starbucks drive-throughs. Filled with one desk and a short stack of electronics — primarily a CD player and some sort of jet-black transmitter with blinking red lights — KDEE pumps a feeble 100 watts into the Sacramento Valley, pushing radio waves only as far as the foothills a few miles away.

But with its unique programming — a fearless song choice that bounds from thumping GrandMaster Flash to lesser-known Stevie Wonder songs (music that commercial stations rarely play) and earnest public-service announcements that urge black men to get their diplomas and tell women to eat more healthfully — the station is, in fact, part of what may be one of the most important trends in broadcast media. "Radio needs to speak to something," said Tristen Hayes, a forty-hour-a-week DJ and self-proclaimed talk show host who is one of only three paid staffers at KDEE, a micro-broadcasting station managed by the California Black Chamber of Commerce. Hayes added forcefully, "but let's not do it to make money." A former Penn State offensive lineman, Hayes has softened in his post-college decades, yet he still has the presence to stop a locomotive.

Hayes pushed away a crane-neck microphone bolted to the desk, leaned back in his chair, and crossed his broad arms over his middle-age belly. He wears Ben Franklin glasses, and a knuckle-size diamond earring. "Radio is broken," he said, "and no one is speaking to us." He paused before clarifying, "In Sacramento, nothing spoke to Afro-Americans, unless it was for some political advantage." He talked over a Chaka Khan song. "Now we have The Chocolate News. We have shows about how the White House affects your house, how health care affects you. We talk about real estate at eye-level; there's not a whole lot of Ebonics here," he laughed. "We lock people in by playing great music, and then talk about real issues."

Historically, radio has represented its sense of place better than other forms of media — consider iconic shows like the Grand Ole Opry and A Prairie Home Companion, or even music itself, often labeled as the Seattle-, Minneapolis-, or British-scene. But over the past fifteen years, radio, more than any other medium, has experienced the quick consolidation of ownership and control of stations by corporate interests. In the mid-1990s, the nation's 10,000 radio stations were owned by some 5,000 entities. By 2008, four companies — most notably, Clear Channel — had gobbled up more than half of the radio airwaves, and were increasingly elbowing out locally produced programming in favor of formulated playlists and nationally syndicated talk shows.

Yet in a quixotic effort to counter this trend, community organizers and pirate radio station enthusiasts tried ten years ago to convince the Federal Communications Commission to open up the airwaves to small, community-focused stations. Surprisingly, they won approval, and over the past several years roughly 800 hyper-local stations have popped up around the country — including 61 in California, like KDEE in Sacramento, as well as a Hawaiian-music station in Watsonville, an environmentally focused one in Mendocino, and a station in Oroville with six hours of programming exclusively for nearby Hmong residents.

And, in the coming months, this plan for "locally-grown radio" is set to double in size, scope, and, correspondingly, impact. In January, President Barack Obama signed into law the Community Radio Act, an order to open up the airwaves to a second batch of 1,000 or so micro-broadcasting stations — or, in FCC parlance, LPFM stations (low-powered frequency modulation). The FCC currently is hammering out final details, but as soon as this summer, an opportunity for those licenses will become available. And, for the first time, the FCC is looking to open up airwaves in urban areas like Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, where the crowded radio band precluded any LPFM stations during the first round of licensing.

So far, the battle over America's airwaves — and how these new LPFM stations could help change the tenor of radio across the country — has mainly been fought in Washington, DC. Traditionally, the FCC has sided with large broadcasting conglomerates that seek to dominate the radio dial. But recently, the agency pushed back against these corporate interests and created more openings for community radio stations in even more cities. Yet these new opportunities will hardly be a slam dunk for groups like California Black Chamber of Commerce or other community organizations: For starters, the competition for these new licenses promises to be intense, and if past practices are any indicator, the FCC tends to favor religious organizations when it hands out licenses.

In Sacramento, one of the few urban areas to receive permission for a LPFM license, these micro-broadcasting stations are critical for defining communities, a duty ignored by the syndicated programming from the mega-chains, Hayes said. "We have a space for Curtis Mayfield," he said, "and we'll also tell you about some great job opportunities, and help you go back to school, if that's what you want. We're a radio station designed to speak to people."

Nearly 20 percent of Sacramento residents are African American, but the black community there traditionally has not been well-defined. It wasn't until two years ago that the city elected its first black mayor, Kevin Johnson, a former NBA standout, and only one of fifteen Sacramento commercial radio stations, 102.5 KSFM, ostensibly plays to a black audience — and that station is owned by CBS and plays pre-programmed set lists. Hayes claims that listenership at 102.5 KSFM has dropped ten percent over the past year as KDEE has gained popularity.

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