Broadcast radio underwent changes in the 1990s that had consequences impossible to foresee. As the first stirrings of what would become internet radio appeared – RealAudio in 1995, SHOUTcast in 1998, Napster in 1999, iTunes in 2001 – Congress enacted the Telecommunications Act of 1996, removing most anti-monopoly limits on corporate ownership, ushering in a frenzy of mergers and acquisitions that resulted in massive consolidation of telephone companies, cable television carriers and over-the-air broadcasters.
Statutory and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deregulation expected to encourage competition either totally backfired or was outright subterfuge, depending upon perspective. “The early years of the twenty-first century found the country’s media world controlled not by the fifty corporations of twenty years earlier, but by all those past media, plus new ones, compacted into five giant conglomerates,” wrote former Providence Journal reporter Ben Bagdikian, in The New Media Monopoly, the 2004 revision of his 1983 classic. “The 1996 Act was created, according to the WaIl Street Journal, when the ‘Gingrich class’ of 1994 Republicans privately asked the industry what it wanted and almost literally gave them the law they asked for.”
Leftist historian and political scientist Howard Zinn wrote, in the final revision before his death of the best-selling A People’s History of the United States, that voices outside the mainstream “were facing an enormous barrier of silence in the national culture.” He continued, “Alternative media made desperate attempts to break through this control. There were several hundred community radio stations around the country – the Pacifica network was the most successful of these – bringing alternative information and ideas to their listeners.”
Bagdikian warned, “The FCC retreat from real regulation of broadcasting for the benefit of the general public has resulted in illegal protests, like pirate, or unlicensed, broadcasts that are transmitted by individually assembled, portable, low-powered stations that reach a particular community, now without news about their cities,” but although unlicensed broadcasting is a federal crime, “at least one thousand illegal low-powered stations appeared around the country. They seem to continue in the United States, are common in other countries, and are not likely to disappear. Among a generation of young people are youths sophisticated in circuitry and a desire to reach their own neighborhoods and towns. A low-powered transmitter, small antenna and amplifier can be built for about $500 with parts available at Radio Shack.”
In response to such criticism and the threat of widespread pirate broadcasting, the FCC in 2000 created the Low-Power FM (LPFM) service for non-profit organizations to obtain legitimate licenses to broadcast non-commercial programming using at most 100 watts, enough to solidly cover a 5-mile radius (and under good conditions double that). By comparison, WHJY 94.1MHz Providence is licensed for 50,000 watts. Shortly after the FCC tried to open up LPFM, Congress at the instigation of broadcast lobbyists slipped restrictions into a spending bill, misleadingly calling it the “Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000,” that imposed significant obstacles to getting LPFM going. It wasn’t until 10 years later that Congress turned the tide back with the “Local Community Radio Act of 2010” that meaningfully reopened the process.
For the past 18 years, Providence Community Radio (ProComRad) has been patiently waiting for the process to crawl along, quietly filing applications and other paperwork since March 2000. Program director Frank Mullin told Motif that the key to success with the FCC was a cooperative application involving two other parties, Providence arts collective AS220 and Brown Student Radio (BSR). The 101.1 signal went live on Jan 2, 2018, simulcasting the internet radio stream from WBRU until each organization begins time-sharing the 101.1MHz frequency in six-hour blocks to originate their own separate programming, planning to begin within the next few months.
Mullin said that “as a favor to ‘BRU and then as a favor to us, what is broadcasting right now on 101.1 is the online stream of WBRU.com, and that was put in place as soon as possible so something would be on that frequency space in January when the FCC let us go live. BSR is recruiting some DJs and getting their programming together, and so are we and so is AS220, and when that happens we’ll be that much closer.” The target for the three stations to begin actively sharing the frequency with their own identities is mid-to-late June if not sooner, Mullin said. “Right now is the online stream of WBRU.com, which is a placeholder, literally a placeholder, until the three separate stations can get their programming.”
Although BSR is not the same entity that owned and operated the much-lamented WBRU on 95.5MHz that ended a 51-year run on Aug 31, 2017, BSR acquired the abandoned WBRU call letters and website, and now identifies as WBRU-LP (that is, low-power). AS220, trading on the popular annual Foo Fest, uses call letters WFOO-LP. ProComRad uses call letters WVVX-LP that, according to Mullin, has a technical ring: “We wanted something that sounded innocuous,” but, he said, most of the desirable combinations were already taken.
RI is pretty small, but the state has four other current LPFM licensees (WWRI-LP 95.1MHz Coventry, WIGV-LP 96.5MHz Providence, WSUB-LP 96.7MHz Ashaway, WXHQ-LP 105.9MHz Newport), only one of which, a Spanish-language religious broadcaster, can be heard in Providence.
Mullin said he has been involved with ProComRad since 2010, and his main motivation is devotion to local music and culture, including live performances and art-related events. While he said that he doesn’t speak for BSR or AS220, there are expectations to keep Sunday available for “The 360 Degree Experience in Sound” that was long a presence on the old WBRU 95.5MHz station, previously as “The 360 Degree Black Experience.”
“We’re looking to get things together as soon as possible to get on the air. We have the capacity to get on the air, the infrastructure set up to be on the air, but we don’t have the programming in place to do so. We’re building an archive, as we speak, and we’re having a couple of meet-and-greets with people who are interested in having shows,” Mullin said. “We’re getting some DJ programming ideas in place, and then we’ll make an announcement about the first date being on the air, and then probably soon thereafter have a fundraising show to recoup costs for the engineer and pay ASCAP and BMI [royalties] so we can play songs.” Stay tuned!
Disclosure: The author participated at the invitation of the FCC in formulating the mathematical and engineering regulatory standards for calculating estimated interference between FM radio broadcasters.