Why you should care

Because we all want a voice, don’t we?

Garrett Kelly likes collecting things: answering-machine recordings, lids from Mason jars, branches with their leaves intact. Every other Sunday, he’ll take a few of his finds to an office in Seattle’s Central District. Folks from the neighborhood come in throughout the day to talk, eat, play records, dance. This evening, about 15 people are taking turns throwing Mason jar lids on the floor. A mic sits in the middle of the room to capture the sound.

No, it isn’t a science experiment. It’s a radio broadcast. Kelly is the co-founder of Hollow Earth Radio, a volunteer-run station that airs everything from Balkan hip-hop to local artists like Jimi Hendrix and Sir Mix-A-Lot — and, yes, even tunes from kitchen objects. Right now, it airs online, but within a year, it’ll be coming to Seattle’s radio dial.

All you devotees of Spotify and This American Life, listen up: There’s action on the FM dial. Some 2,000 stations like Hollow Earth Radio are set to launch across the U.S., thanks to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) expansion of low-power FM radio: not-for-profit, neighborhood-focused stations with humble, hyperlocal signal ranges of 3 to 5 miles, on average. They’re the mom-and-pops of broadcasting, featuring what mainstream radio, which is mostly owned by giant corporations like iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel), tends to disdain: local news and bands that no one but the DJ has ever heard of.

But the redheaded stepchild of radio could be just what a homogeneous, supercorporatized landscape needs in order to compete with the wealth of radio options like Pandora, Sirius, Spotify — not to mention an entire universe of listening composed of podcasts alone. Around since 2000, low-power FM has been considered little more than a nuisance. NPR and corporate broadcasters were concerned about signal interference in larger markets, so these little guys were mainly restricted to rural areas. There’s not much chance for momentum in a cornfield. And indeed, until last year, only about 1,000 such stations existed, a quarter of them under the control of national religious broadcasters.

In 2011, Congress passed a law to enable low-power FM in urban areas, and now the FCC is beginning to issue new licenses. For their part, the hayseeds have begun to sprout grassroots: City-based advocacy efforts to get more people involved in low-power FM have sprung up across the country.

Why now? The industry’s revenue has been flat: $17.6 billion in 2013 compared to $17.2 billion in 2010, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau. And everyone knows that Internet radio is steadily supplanting traditional FM: In one study by Edison Research, nearly 45 percent of listeners of online services like Pandora and Spotify say that they’re mostly ditching traditional local radio.

This movement could mean an amplification of Middle American voices, with the potential to affect democracy on a national level.

But the once-moribund industry is hitching a ride back to relevancy with a four-wheeled niche. “People listen to us in their cars now,” says Susan McCabe, the station manager of Voice of Vashon, a formerly online-only station that was awarded a low-power FM license. “For them, that’s real radio.” Besides which, 20 percent of U.S. adults still don’t have reliable Internet access. A kid in New York City may have never seen an actual radio, but it’s a safe bet that those Americans without Wi-Fi own one.

That’s why more than a dozen groups have rallied around low-power FM in Seattle. It began with a local business, Brown Paper Tickets, an online platform for event tickets. The company periodically hires “doers” to pursue community projects, and in 2013, one “doer,” Sabrina Roach, established the Puget Sound Neighborhood Radio Cohort, a coalition of 15 area organizations.

That wasn’t hard, as the region already had a thriving Internet radio scene. Roach was able to persuade other groups that had nothing to do with radio to come onboard as well. For instance, OneAmerica, a nonprofit that serves immigrants, came up with a plan to air news, community alerts, and cultural programming in Spanish and Somali, two of the most widely spoken languages among its clients. “They’re excited to see a radio station that speaks to them directly,” says organizer Mohamud Yussuf. Outside Seattle, this movement could mean an amplification of Middle American voices, with the potential to affect democracy on a national level.

Competition for low-power FM stations was stiff: Nearly 3,000 groups applied for just under 2,000 slots, according to the Prometheus Radio Project. But Roach’s Puget Sound cohort had a resounding success rate: 13 of its members now have licenses. Collaborating in advance helped ease the way to FCC approval. Several groups, for instance, agreed to share frequencies, since their availability was limited.

Getting a license is only the beginning, though. Voice of Vashon is up and running, but the rest of the groups still have to secure construction permits, find funding and figure out how to engage volunteers and listeners. At Hollow Earth Radio, Garrett Kelly is still figuring out where the station will place its antenna. He’s also coming to the realization that the station may have to be a little less freewheeling. The FCC doesn’t regulate online stations, so Hollow Earth’s DJs haven’t had to worry about, say, holding back f-bombs.

Kelly is still enthusiastic. Since Hollow Earth Radio received its low-power FM license, it’s gotten more attention than ever, he says. “We’ve gotten tons more emails from people wanting to get on air.”

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