When the United States Senate passed the Low Power Community Radio Act last week, it opened the door for the creation of thousands of small FM stations across the continent and, in particular, rural communities. This bill closely compares to the Canadian Radio and Television Commission’s regulations governing low-output FM broadcasting in Canada.
In Canada, those community radio stations must operate as not-for-profit organizations, with specific requirements for local content and non-traditional programming. Similarly, in the USA, the current requirement for low-power stations is that they are non-commercial in nature. At first blush, this may seem to be focused on university campus radio, travellers’ information stations and the like, but, in fact, provides a tremendous boost to rural development efforts.
In 2008, the typical cost for acquiring a full-power licensed radio station exceeded $2,500,000. That, clearly, was beyond the reach of small towns across North America. The maximum power outputs, prior to the LPCRA, were so low that broadcast ranges were measured in hundreds of meters, at maximum. In Canada, prior to changes in 2000, stations were limited by hours of operation, and outputs that made reception difficult at distances of a mile or so.
Many communities opted to use the Internet to set up online broadcasters, thus skirting many of the regulations to which radio broadcasters were subjected. While this option allowed for an exponentially greater reach, the irony was that, in rural communities, many homes and communities had limited or no access to high-speed internet, meaning that they effectively could not access those small broadcasters.
While reception quality for online broadcasts tends to be reasonable, many people who otherwise are able to access the sites fail to do so because of the inconvenience of having to open a browser, enter a URL, tie in speakers to the computer, and so on. Accessing a radio station simply requires one or two pushes of a button. Thus, ease of use becomes integral to the decision of whether to tune into a local broadcast. Once a typical radio listener tunes in a station, that station will remain the one of choice for upwards of several hours. Since loyalty to a station is important to develop a following and encourage participation, ease of access and ease of use become critical determinants of a station’s success.
With the lifting of restrictions on community radio station development, the two primary considerations that will govern viability of a new station are community participation and cost (both capital and operating).
Fortunately, there is no shortage of suppliers and distributors of broadcast transmitters, antennae, consoles and peripheral equipment that are needed to establish a workable broadcast center. Costs for a complete setup begin in the range of $40-55,000. However, that is only half of the equation needed.
Community input may be the most difficult to generate and manage, yet appear to be one of the easiest. It is common to see almost universal support for such undertakings, but once a recruit is asked to reach into his pocket, or commit volunteer time on a regular basis, much of that initial support evaporates.
A reasonable option is to set up the local station as a non-commercial operation, but solicit local businesses to input money into the station’s start-up costs, in exchange for advertising and/or time slots. Similarly, community groups and charitable undertakings may be asked to provide manpower, in exchange for time slots during operating hours. By relying on commercial operations for capital costs, and community groups for operational input, financial risks are minimized.
A supplementary option for successful setup and operation may involve partnering with nearby communities, and arranging for re-broadcast (repeater signals) in those local areas. This increases the number of businesses and community groups that may participate, and increases the reach of local promotions and advertising impact.
Within this general premise, there are almost limitless permutations and combinations that will allow for quick deployment of your local radio station. By passing the LPCRA, along with existence of the CRTC Canadian regulations, thousands of communities now are granted access to their own localized radio operations, and, with that, the potential for building another brick in the framework of community economic development.