Low-Power FM Radio
'Share it with each other. It's what you do.'
By Rick Karr
Imagine climbing a hundred-foot radio tower in the howling headwinds of a Category 3 hurricane so that you can stay on the air and keep your neighbors informed as catastrophe bears down. Or remaining at your post, on the mic and on the air, as floodwaters engulf the radio studio. Or pouring every cent of your income into the station to say on the air the aftermath, even though you're living in a FEMA-issue trailer because you've lost your home and everything in it.
I can't. But Brice Phillips has done every one of those things. And that's why he's one of the most remarkable people I've ever met, and an inspiration to those of us who believe that community radio has the power to change lives -- and save lives.
Brice is the brains, heart, and brawn behind WQRZ-LP, a low-power, community FM radio station on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. His station was the only one in the region that stayed on the air throughout both Katrina and Rita. I met him last year when Bill Moyers sent me and producer Peter Bull out to report on the state of the media in the U.S.
When BILL MOYERS JOURNAL rebroadcast our report, I had a chance to catch up with Brice earlier this week -- and to think about why we need more stations like his.
WQRZ-LP is one of about 800 "LPFM" (Low Power FM) stations that have come on the air since 2000. Back in the late 1990s, the FCC proposed licensing thousands of the stations as an antidote to Big Media's takeover of radio. "Deregulation" had nearly killed local broadcasting: Conglomerates bought up hundreds of mom-and-pop stations, then replaced local shows and community-service programs with more-profitable, one-size-fits-all fare. The radio dial turned into the aural equivalent of McDonalds: You'd find the same choices everywhere, but none of it had local flavor. Stations stopped serving their communities’ needs.
LPFM was supposed to be the solution: thousands of stations run by volunteers who knew what their neighbors wanted and needed to hear. An LPFM station wouldn't broadcast to a whole county or even a city -- it'd serve a single neighborhood. It would represent the essence of local broadcasting.
In Brice Phillips' case, that meant serving Hancock County, MS in emergencies. From the day WQRZ-LP went on the air, its motto was: "Come rain, shine, or God forbid another Hurricane Camille". There were no full-time stations in the county, and broadcasters in New Orleans and Biloxi were miles away.
Hancock County officials say Brice saved lives by staying on the air as the storms battered the area. After the skies cleared, he aired constant updates on where his neighbors could find aid, Q&A sessions with relief workers and government officials, and music by local artists that reminded the community of better times.
He’s been doing that for two years now, but he can’t keep up the pace much longer. WQRZ-LP is broke.
"I'll be out of money in 30 days if things don't change," he told me. Then he laughed, and the laugh was genuine. That's how Brice is.
Radio's a powerful medium in part because it's cheap. But it isn't free. Brice has been using his own money to pay for transmitters, towers, cables, CD players, computers, microphones, and everything else the station needs to stay on the air. He won a $16,000 award for his service, then sunk all of it into WQRZ.
Yet despite the fact that he’s rewritten the book on broadcasting during catastrophes -- government agencies in the U.S. and Japan now use WQRZ as an example -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Mississippi state agencies have denied his grant applications. He says Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) couldn’t help. Nor could his neighbors, because the area's economy is still reeling. Meanwhile, WQRZ still doesn't have a permanent home because Hancock County officials have yet to break ground on a new Emergency Operations Center.
“There are still 4,000 families living in FEMA campers around here,” he said. “I don’t have a lease for the station, and I’m down to my last $15,000.” His house, which was badly damaged by the storms, has been demolished, and he’s living in what he jokingly calls a “FEMA Castle” himself.
“The new problem around here is formaldehyde poisoning,” he said, “because so many people are living in these trailers, and the plastic and so on in the trailers emits a lot of toxins.”
One more thing: Brice is disabled -- he suffers from a chronic neurochemical disorder, which has kept him dependent on Social Security checks.
The station’s still on the air, though, and Brice spends most of his time in his makeshift studio. Sometimes he records interviews in his trailer.
The one bright spot has been the FCC, which has allowed Brice to increase the station’s power and range. Officials there are encouraging him to apply for an upgraded license that would allow him to better serve the community. “One guy there called me a ‘purple cow’ -- a strange and unusual beast,” he said. “And purple cows can end up changing the rules.”
Brice is an extreme example of what LPFM can do. Other stations focus on environmental issues, the needs of migrant farm workers, or local musicians. Still others offer religious programming. But they’re all doing exactly what they were supposed to do: serving local needs.
And that’s not a partisan assessment. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been one of LPFM’s biggest supporters. Former FCC Chair Michael Powell -- a Republican -- touted the stations as one of the big successes of his tenure. Current FCC Chair Kevin Martin -- who was nominated by President Bush -- seems to agree.
But LPFM stations are only on the air in rural areas and small towns -- there are almost none in suburban areas and big cities. That’s because Big Media doesn’t like the idea at all. When the FCC first proposed the new stations, commercial broadcasters fought back through their lobbying arm, the National Association of Broadcasters, which lobbies on behalf of. Big Media argued that the new stations' signals would cause static and other interference. My former employers at National Public Radio agreed. So Congress approved a compromise: New community stations would be limited to rural communities and small towns, where there was little chance of interference, until a team of independent engineers had studied the risks.
That report showed that there was no risk of interference. This summer, both the House and Senate took up bills to expand the reach of LPFM. The bills have bipartisan support, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll become law. Brice thinks it’s a no-brainer, though: It may be tough for him to keep WQRZ-LP on the air, but he thinks every community in the U.S. needs a station like it.