From – Sustainable City Network
With an emphasis on local broadcasting produced by a team of dedicated volunteers, more than 800 community radio stations across the U.S. are serving listeners, thanks mostly to the support of small local businesses.
Community radio is often confused with public radio. Unlike public radio, community radio stations are classified by the FCC as non-commercial or nonprofit radio stations with very weak signals – in some cases only broadcasting within a 10-mile radius. They don’t belong to a national organization for financial support and because their listeners are limited to a specific community, they don’t cast a wide net for fundraising.
Despite these limitations, community radio is a growing industry. In fact, the FCC has 2,000 active applications for this type of license. Supporters say the stations are growing in popularity among listeners who are tired of spoon-fed syndicated programming where the broadcast schedule is the same in Boston as it is in San Francisco.
KZMU General Manager Jeff Flanders explained that his Moab, Utah, community radio station started in an abandoned trailer in 1992 out of a need for local broadcasting for its 8,000 residents. Moab is located 120 miles from its nearest neighboring city.
“We knew that we wanted to do something for the community and it had to be local. To do it properly it had to be extremely local and provide something that the national and state television, radio stations and newspapers didn’t offer,” Flanders said. “We work to fill the niche locally.”
In 1999, the radio station moved out of the van and into a permanent station. Today the station has more than 100 volunteers who “can play anything they want,” Flanders said.
“As a Pacifica affiliate, all of our programming is locally originated with the addition of nationally prized Democracy Now and a small selection of regional productions. KZMU is about music, all kinds of music, that connects community members to one another, to the wider world and having fun while we’re at it. We aren’t particularly polished, we don’t always know what we’re going to do next, but you can be sure that whatever you hear will be spontaneous, fun and full of positive energy,” according to the KZMU website.
In 2008, KZMU was awarded a grant from the utility company Rocky Mountain Power and combined with local fundraising, this community radio station became 100 percent solar powered. Now besides serving the residents with local information about politics and events, the station is going green with 60 solar panels.
“Since everything in radio is electronic, it’s a huge savings,” Flanders said. “The station isn’t net zero, but that was the goal at installation.”
KRUU-FM Radio of Fairfield, Iowa, began as the outcome of a town hall meeting in 2006, when residents saw the need for an independent station. “The Voice of Fairfield” went on the air in September of that year and has been broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week since then.
“A grassroots agenda-free station with 100 percent locally-produced content featuring 70 weekly programs and hosts from across the community spectrum, KRUU’s mission is giving voice to the community,” said station manager James Moore. “We are who shows up, and so far that represents over 200,000 volunteer hours. We wanted to make radio, not syndicate it, as so many stations do,” Moore said.
“Because Fairfield is a creative haven, musical mecca, entrepreneurial and culturally diverse town of 10,000 with an international university that boasts a David Lynch master’s degree in film, there has never been a shortage of volunteer hosts,” he said.
Starting in 2009, KRUU became the only solar-powered community radio station in the Midwest.
“The entire system was donated, designed and delivered by community businesses, organizations and individuals,” Moore said. “As a solar station, KRUU helps brand the community’s cultural, creative, entrepreneurial and sustainable elements.”
This decision to go green was motivated by the generosity of community supporters, Moore said.
“Though Fairfield is a sustainable-minded town, it was a supporter of the station who donated a system he decided not to use for his home that set everything in motion. Others stepped up, too, to provide batteries for back up. Mind you, the whole thing was designed, delivered and built by donation. It’s been a great and highly visible marker for the station and the community,” Moore said.
In Bee Cave, Texas, Sun Radio listeners also enjoy listening to programming that is solar powered. Through equipment donated by Freedom Solar Power, KZMU is a collection of four community radio stations that are becoming net-zero operations one by one.
“They loved the radio station and were kind enough to donate their (solar) panels,” said KZMU general manager Denver O’Neal. “We couldn’t have done it without them.” Sun Radio also has a solar-powered RV that is used during remote broadcasts.
Each of the four Sun Radio stations tailors its broadcast for the local community. The listeners in Dripping Springs, Texas, for instance, don’t hear the same programming as listeners in Austin. That emphasis on local is what sets community radio apart from commercial stations, and even from state affiliates of National Public Radio. Sun Radio plays a broad range of “Americana-style” music.
“We aren’t trying to be like anyone else,” O’Neal said. “We don’t play the Top 40 Country, the Top 40 hits. We are anti-establishment. The musicians we play are making great music from the heart, not because they want to be famous.”
Sun Radio is a non-profit grassroots community radio station without support from the city or county government. Listeners can support the station through direct contributions on the Sun Radio website, but most of its financial support comes from a network of local small business owners. O’Neal explained that cultivating a steady stream of support from underwriters has been a challenge.
“In a small town, it’s a challenge to educate the small businesses and public in general about that (underwriting),” O’Neal said.
Utilizing the volunteers in the right way is another challenge, O’Neal said.
“It’s a challenge having the right people in the right places, like any other business,” O’Neal said. “People want to volunteer but by the time you teach them to do it, you could have done it yourself.”
Besides two public affairs show, KZMU also has a series of youth shows starting with children and their parents on Saturday mornings. Local sixth graders record the radio station’s Word of the Day. High school students have the opportunity to participate in the “Voices of Youth” program where they learn to put together a three- to four-minute piece on any topic.
Sun Radio started by broadcasting high school football and church services and through the years it hasn’t stopped doing that. In fact, it has expanded its local programming and is currently preparing for the high school football season.
“We offer space to our church neighbors, all denominations. We offered space to a Hindi temple. We know that we wouldn’t be here without those two. That’s how we kept the lights on, before we were solar powered,” O’Neal said.
He said those who want to start a community radio station – solar powered or otherwise – need to have the passion and the drive for it. He suggested that organizers and volunteers include those with prior experience in broadcast radio or Ham radio experts.
Flanders’ advice is “just do it.”
“Don’t sit around saying “gee, I wish we had a radio station,” just do it. It will take a couple of years to get it going. But once you get a core group of people who want it, it will have an energy of its own,” Flanders said.
Moore said community radio takes a lot of hard work and attention to detail, but it’s incredibly rewarding to see people of all ages and backgrounds step up, share their insights, passions and music, and make great radio.
“It’s personally empowering but it also empowers a community. Gives it color and dimension. And here’s the secret: it’s fun! But it also provides important opportunities for people to stay connected and in touch with local events, politics, weather and so forth,” Moore said.