Three years ago, Joe Steinberger decided to do something about the dearth of local media in his town. A city councilor and lawyer with a longtime commitment to public service, Steinberger was astounded by how closely his fellow Rockland, Maine, residents followed the council’s three-hour meetings, which were televised and endlessly rerun on a local cable channel. “The camera was fixed, the video not at all slick, and our voices muffled, but people still watched,” Steinberger marvels. After initial efforts to give voters livelier coverage failed, he learned about a Federal Communications Commission initiative then being debated in Washington: low-power FM radio (LPFM).
In an age of increasingly consolidated media, in which commercial broadcasters blast thousands of watts over dozens of miles, LPFM stations are 100-watt operations, each with an effective radius of 3.5 miles. They are noncommercial by definition and vibrantly local by nature. Costing as little as $6,000 to build, they are beacons of grassroots democracy, offering a response to A.J. Liebling’s decades-old observation that freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. “As soon as I read about LPFM, I knew it was a great opportunity for Rockland citizens to take more active roles in our community,” Steinberger says. When, a few months later, he read that the FCC had opened its first application window for Maine and nine other states, Steinberger went into action. With only two weeks to file, he spent hours researching the FCC’s guidelines and applied on behalf of the Penobscot School, a local center for international exchange he co-founded in 1986.
Today, with thirty-five volunteer deejays, the sponsorship of thirty-four local businesses (monthly operating costs are only $500) and more than half the city listening, WRFR is Rockland’s only completely locally programmed station and one of the most active LPFM stations in the country. Shunning the canned programming approach of Rockland’s two Clear Channel stations, WRFR offers an array of local talent, tastes and interests, and was recently named Maine station of the year by a state music association. Although country music, a Maine favorite, is heavily represented, hardly any WRFR deejay restricts himself to a single era, genre or Top-40 playlist. On Sundays, Frank Kramer’s Crossworks plays an unpredictable mix of Central African rumba, John Mellencamp and Native American rain chants. On Saturdays, a 14-year-old girl guides her audience through Suzanne Vega, Enya and Christian rock hits, while on Friday nights David Dyer, a University of Maine student, plays whatever he or his listeners have pined for all week from the personal collection of 600 CDs he lugs to the station. “I try to make my listeners happy while making myself happy,” Dyer says. “It’s like a three-hour therapy session from the hard week. Everyone loves being able to hear songs they want, instead of hardly or never hearing them on most stations.” Even Rockland’s police department loves it–several cops regularly visit Dyer to request a mélange of electronica, progressive rock and 1980s pop that helps them get through the inevitable lulls of Rockland’s night beat.
Just five years ago, the FCC would have outlawed WRFR as a “pirate” broadcaster. Steinberger might have faced a $10,000 fine, federal impoundment and even jail time, threats hundreds of pirates braved through the 1980s and ’90s–all for running community stations in breach of government regulations heavily tilted toward commercial radio. Of the nation’s 13,700 radio stations, more than 80 percent are commercial. Due to the wave of mergers sanctioned by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, American radio’s top twenty-five owners now control more than 25 percent of all commercial stations and command more than two-thirds of all ad revenue and listeners nationwide. Clear Channel alone mushroomed from forty stations in 1996 to more than 1,200 today. It’s become notorious for a centralized model of broadcasting that includes voice-tracking–recording the same out-of-town deejay for multiple locations, customizing each program to create the illusion of locally produced content.