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Starting in October, the Federal Communications Commission will begin licensing new Low Power FM stations in some of the larger cities in the U.S. Low Power FM was approved by Congress in 2001 but restricted to rural areas because of concerns the stations would interfere with full-power broadcasters in urban areas.
Keith Brand reports that after a decade of studies and lobbying, those little stations are ready to hit the big time.
KEITH BRAND, BYLINE: In a musty old row house in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, Jim Bear is about to begin his radio show.
JIM BEAR: Good afternoon everybody. You're listening to G-town Radio and GTownRadio.com. We are the sound from Germantown.
BRAND: Right now they're just an internet radio station, but if the folks at G-town Radio are successful, they'll soon be broadcasting their signal.
BEAR: Germantown is a very diverse community that has a lot of poor people and a lot of people who don't have the Internet in their homes and that's one of the reasons we think LPFM is such a valuable move for us.
BRAND: LPFM is short for low-powered FM, a new class of non-commercial FM radio stations. Today, many of the 800 LPFM stations are broadcasting to rural areas of less than 25,000 people. G-town Radio has potential to reach a densely populated Philadelphia neighborhood with stories about a Germantown they may not know.
BEAR: We have a lawyer and her partner, they do a talk show on legal issues. We have actually a collective called the Black Tribbles that has a program about sci-fi, geek culture from a black perspective.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: He gives us a breakdown of the most recent episode of "The Walking Dead" which was a very Andrea-centric show for all...
BRAND: While that may seem more like "Wayne's World," than "World News Tonight," LPFM stations can broadcast hyper-local content that directly addresses news in their communities. But authorizing these stations beyond just rural areas was a challenge. The effort to pass federal legislation to license urban LPFM station was led by Mike Doyle, a congressman from Pittsburgh.
REP. MIKE DOYLE: There was heavy resistance from commercial broadcasters to allowing this to go forward on the basis that they thought it would interfere with their signals. So we wanted to resolve that and we had a study commissioned in 2003, which basically showed that we could open up the possibility for thousands of Low Power FM stations to go forward across the country.
BRAND: Because of consolidation in the radio industry, many commercial stations no longer provide local news. Doyle says that could be catastrophic in the event of an emergency, like Hurricane Katrina.
DOYLE: There's 42 stations that were in that Gulf Coast area. Only four stayed on the air during Katrina and two of them were LPFM stations.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The Hancock County emergency operations phone has been running 24 hours a day since Katrina hit and we'll be here to see it through.
BRAND: The Prometheus Radio Project helps community organizations apply for and built Low Power FM stations, where Brandy Doyle is their spokesperson.
BRANDY DOYLE: It's really exciting that for the first time we're going to see these stations in urban areas because the density of population in urban areas means that of the three to five mile range of a Low Power radio station is going to reach hundreds of thousands of people.
BRAND: According to Doyle, who's no relation to Congressman Mike Doyle, LPFM stations around the country are already providing news and information to many non-English speaking communities.
DOYLE: There's not much local information on the Internet in languages other than English and, you know, even in the rest of the media, you're lucky if there's a couple of Spanish-language radio stations.
BRAND: Building a low-power radio station is well within the reach of many community groups, says Liz Humes, a board member of WRIR in Richmond, Virginia.
LIZ HUMES: When we started, we were able to build a fairly professional radio station out of recycled or discarded goods. Everything we've got was castaways, but still perfectly usable.
BRAND: WRIR was able to secure a license in a sea of 200,000 because there were no interference issues. Humes thinks the effect LPFM stations have on their communities is simple.
HUMES: We teach people how to create radio and we give them radio shows, and that's what we do.
BRAND: And beginning in October, people from Washington, D.C. to Chicago, to San Francisco will be able to do it themselves. For NPR News, I'm Keith Brand.
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