RADIO DEEJAY: Step right this way to Oldies 100.
TERENCE SMITH: The sounds of radio today...
RADIO DEEJAY: The weekend filled with unforgettable favorites: That's what you need. Here's Cat Stevens and "Wild World."
TERENCE SMITH: Smooth, professional, and homogeneous. A few large media companies now own the vast majority of stations across the country, and the programming tends to sound the same.
But this is also radio today.
BROADCASTER, KRBS: This is Denise, and you're listening to the community events hour on KRBS-OP Oroville. First United Methodist Church is having a fund-raiser on Sunday.
BROADCASTER, KPFZ: This is KPFZ, non-commercial radio for the free speech capital of the world, Lake County.
TERENCE SMITH: This is community radio, low-power FM -- with the emphasis on "low," putting out a signal equal to a 100-watt light bulb -- tiny stations run by volunteers who want to open radio up to anyone who wants a say or has a song.
ERV KNORZER, General Manager, KRBS-FM: "Somewhere over the Rainbow"-- that's our theme. Everybody calls in on that. They love that song.
TERENCE SMITH: Erv Knorzer, a retired fireman, started KRBS with his daughter Mary Ann in Oroville, California, population: 13,000.
In recent years the town lost its newspaper and its two hometown radio stations. KRBS is trying to fill the gap.
ERV KNORZER: We wanted the antenna to be downtown and bring the community closer and bring people downtown.
TERENCE SMITH: It's been on the air since March, a recipient of one of the hard-won licenses the federal communications commission is slowly issuing for low-power FM.
DEEJAY, WRYR: Hello, Chesapeake Bay! For the first time, an environmental organization owns and operates a radio station!
TERENCE SMITH: WRYR in Deale, Maryland, along the Chesapeake Bay, is run by Sacred, a local environmental group. Mike Shay is Vice President.
MIKE SHAY, Vice President, SACReD: Low-power radio is an opportunity for a community to have communications. Before that, for us it was putting up signs alongside the road. Okay, let's go.
TERENCE SMITH: Volunteers, with technical experts lending a hand, built the station from the ground up. Last March, after years of preparation, they were ready for the thrill of the first on-air test. ( Beeping )
DEEJAY, WRYR: Yes! You're talking right now! It's delayed! (Voice inaudible ) ( music playing ) All right! ( Applause )
TERENCE SMITH: And finally, the real thing. WRYR, 100-watts strong, was on the air.
DEEJAY, WRYR: This is my first deejay day. I'm feeling the power already. I don't think it's low-power. I think it's total-power FM.
RADIO LISTENERS: All right, total power! All right! ( Applause )
DEEJAY, WRYR: Bring the monitor up, Jeffrey.
BROADCASTER, WRYR: You got the wrong one on.
DEEJAY, WRYR: Oh. Oh, okay.
SINGING: Gonna get my muffin and a chicken...
CATHERINE ELIAS JERMANY, Board President, KPFZ-FM: This is KPFZ-LP 104.5 FM Lacerne, Lake County Community Radio.
TERENCE SMITH: For Catherine Elias Jermany, at KPFZ in Lakeport in northern California, low-power FM is about giving airtime to the voiceless in the community.
RADIO ANNOUNCER, KPFZ: Nothing was really said to say, like, "I'm sorry, you know, for putting you on reserves for extinct animals." That's what reservations are.
CATHERINE ELIAS JERMANY: I'm sort of into free speech, and the radio station gives an opportunity for all voices in the community to be heard.
TERENCE SMITH: Andy Weiss is the station manager, announcer, and founding dreamer behind KPFZ. The control room is in his house. The station's antenna is up in his oak tree.
ANDY WEISS: And here's our transmitter room-- actually, the laundry room. $2,500 bucks worth of equipment, and that's all it takes to get one of these started. That's all there is to it-- this little box, a radio station in a box.
TERENCE SMITH: Low-power FM is an experiment in power to the people championed by this man: William Kennard, who was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission under President Clinton.
To Kennard, the airwaves belong to the people.
WILLIAM KENNARD, Former Chairman, FCC: Low-power FM was an attempt to give a voice to local communities, to put radio licenses in the hands of, not commercial interests, but noncommercial interests-- schools, churches, non-profits, community groups-- so that they would have a voice for their communities.
TERENCE SMITH: Kennard found an unlikely ally in this man: A former radio pirate turned legit named Pete Tridish, or Petri Dish, as he's known.
Tridish ran an unlicensed radio station, "Radio Mutiny." It became one of about 1,000 unlicensed, and therefore illegal, pirate radio stations on the dial. The FCC was termed to shut them down.
PETE TRIDISH, Prometheus Radio: The FCC came a whole bunch of times. I think we set the record because they visited us six times before they actually broke down the door and came in and took off the transmitter.
TERENCE SMITH: But then the FCC approved low-power FM, licensed, legal, and free. Pete Tridish gave up piracy and launched Prometheus Radio, becoming a traveling troubadour for the cause.
PETE TRIDISH: We went around, you know, from town to town just talking in coffee shops or libraries or college classrooms, anywhere that would have us, and getting people to apply for these radio stations.
WILLIAM KENNARD: There were literally tens of thousands of expressions of interest in this service.
There's a huge pent-up demand for people who want to use the airwaves to speak to their communities. I knew we were on to something, something important.
TERENCE SMITH: Three thousand and five hundred applications came flooding in the doors of the FCC from churches, schools, community groups, and environmental groups, all nonprofit.
Big media companies, like the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio, were concerned that the new low-power stations might create interference with existing stations. Kevin Klose is President of National Public Radio.
KEVIN KLOSE, President, NPR: We didn't see it as a competition issue. The problems were that there was not sufficient... there hadn't been sufficient testing in the field of whether there would be interference from low-power stations to existing... especially existing public radio stations, which happen to be some of our members.
TERENCE SMITH: Congress agreed and mandated that new testing had to be done, and the only stations who could apply for a license were in rural areas where there was more space on the dial. Two-thirds of the applications, those from urban areas, were thrown out.
Now only 60 stations out of the thousands that Kennard envisioned are on the air. Why so few?
ANDY WEISS, KPFZ: We were ready in our souls, in our hearts.
What was a surprise was the amount of work and the technical part, and that was difficult because we are not professional broadcasters.
TERENCE SMITH: And is anyone listening?
CATHERINE ELIAS JERMANY: I don't think anybody knows we're here.
SPOKESPERSON: Have you heard about the new low-power radio station, KPFC...
WOMAN IN CAR: No.
SPOKESPERSON: ...Community radio?
GROCERY STORE CLERK: No, I haven't actually. I haven't heard anything about it. No, I haven't.
MAN IN RESTAURANT: Is this the one that has the native Americans?
MAN IN RESTAURANT: Yeah, I've heard of it. I thought it was a little different, and I liked the music.
WOMAN: You have a good time.
TERENCE SMITH: One way to spread the word is to show up at community events, like this one atop the damn in Oroville.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: This is an American city: Oroville, California. What is your name? And I'll get your name on the air in just a second.
BRITTANY STRATTON: My name is Brittany Stratton.
RADIO ANNOUNCER, KRBS: Brittany Stratton, okay, and you live in Thermalito, right? Okay, we have Brittany Stratton from Thermalito. And she's promised to listen to our station.
RADIO ANNOUNCER, KRBS: Brittany Stratton. Brittany from Thermalito. She promises to listen to KRBS.
Does that mean you haven't listened to us so far? Brittany, what have you been missing?
EVENT SPEAKER: May the boat be sturdy, the crew be courageous...
TERENCE SMITH: Along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, WRYR broadcast the blessing of the fleet fest. Adam Hewison organized the event.
ADAM HEWISON: It's been very instrumental in getting people down here today.
SINGING: Thank the Lord I saw the light
SINGING: I saw the light I saw the light...
MIKE SHAY, Vice President, Sacred: We have the power of a light bulb. We are not a 50,000-watt station. We are not low-power. Really for our community this is total power.
SINGING: I saw the light.
TERENCE SMITH: Will low-power fm ever be able to expand beyond its rural limits? The results of the congressionally mandated signal interference test will be ready by summer, but no matter what they show, it will take another act of Congress to give the all- clear signal to low-power FM.