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.

In January 2000, then-FCC chairman William Kennard reversed twenty years of neglect of noncommercial community radio by authorizing LPFM. But after heavy lobbying by the National Association of Broadcasters and–to the dismay of advocates everywhere–National Public Radio, Congress enacted LPFM rules in December 2000 reducing the potential number of LPFM frequencies by 75 percent. Central to NAB’s dubious argument was that LPFM would create an “ocean of interference” with existing stations. “Policy-makers didn’t adequately balance engineering concerns with broader policy concerns,” says Cheryl Leanza, who has led the fight for LPFM as deputy director of a Washington-based public interest law firm. “It was as if the tiniest loss in technical terms outweighed the greatest gain for democracy and diversity.” The losses were greatest for large cities, where Congress’s NAB-inspired intervention effectively snatched scarce dial space from dozens of potential stations.

Many LPFM advocates still believe fear of competition was the true impetus behind NPR’s and NAB’s positions. “Interference was the only thing they could raise as an issue,” says Dylan Wrynn, a k a Pete TriDish, technical director of the Prometheus Radio Project, an organization dedicated to LPFM. TriDish’s theory is supported by a Congressionally mandated study that, ironically, NAB and NPR demanded three years ago. Released by the FCC in July, the in-depth report by MITRE–one of the industry’s premier engineering firms–agreed with past studies by FCC engineers and LPFM advocates in finding both the 2000 rules and additional studies unnecessary. The NAB’s “oceans” of interference have turned out to be puddles reaching a fraction of LPFM’s already small coverage area.

Unsurprisingly, the NAB has skewered MITRE’s methodology, denying that it meets statutory requirements the association itself helped craft. An NAB spokesman said that even “negligible” interference is “objectionable in [NAB’s] view.” Says Michael Bracy, a DC-based media lobbyist, “[NAB and NPR] called for this study, defined its parameters, and now say it wasn’t well designed–meantime, the clock is running out on LPFM, and taxpayer dollars are being spent.” NPR calls LPFM service “complementary” with public radio but remains concerned about interference. NPR now advocates a yearlong trial run of twenty test stations before revising LPFM rules. “You’d get enough of a snapshot of different markets to have a much better basis to proceed on a wider-scale implementation,” says Mike Starling, NPR’s vice president for engineering. While Bracy hopes NPR’s proposal leads to a workable compromise, TriDish calls it a “disingenuous stalling tactic” that facilitates other stations’ ongoing pre-emption of LPFM frequencies.

The FCC, which just finished collecting public comments on MITRE’s report, is poised to make a new LPFM proposal this fall. If the FCC and Congress do the right thing and roll back the onerous 2000 rules, the number of LPFM stations could jump from about 220 now to well over 1,000, the FCC’s previous projection for 2004. But given the larger debate over media ownership rules, substantive changes might take many months. “No one who favors media diversity believes LPFM to be a substitute for broader media reforms,” Leanza says. “But the fact that we have to fight for something so small, innocuous and obviously good is unfortunately indicative of the policy debate we’re facing today in Washington.”

In the meantime, Steinberger knows WRFR is lucky to be in Rockland. The closest station is less than two miles away but well beyond WRFR’s frequency. Not one of his several hundred neighbors has complained about interference. And WRFR’s diverse, innovative programming stands as the best proof of LPFM’s fundamental value. Local bands drop by every week to perform live or chat with WRFR deejays. When President Bush made his staged landing aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, Alan Lowe, one of WRFR’s jazz experts, ranted about the “draft-dodger strutting like he was some big warrior” before playing James Brown’s “Funky President” for those who missed his point. The daily reports of Ron Huber, a local environmentalist, provide some of the state’s only in-depth coverage of Maine’s fast-disappearing commercial fishing communities. Just as unique is Morning Train, WRFR’s weekday call-in show, which draws state legislators and local officials into intimate conversations and raucous policy debates with Rockland’s 7,600 residents.

Lowe’s views and Huber’s activism are not shared by everyone at WRFR. “The perspective here isn’t right or left, but local, open and all-inclusive,” Steinberger says. “It’s about knowing, respecting and listening to your neighbors–and everything special we do comes out of that.”