Low Power FM: The Power for the Future?

On July 2nd, 2009, the faithful fans of KUT-FM’s long-time DJ Larry Monroe tuned in to hear his world-renowned free-form music program The Phil Music Show (Phil Music being a fictitious DJ who never showed up, leaving Larry to “stand in”). But instead of Larry there was a new DJ and a new program, filled with faceless middle of the road AOR programming. KUT management issued a lot of excuses for the change, and the fans went thru a lot of protests trying to get Larry’s shows back on the air (he also had an award-winning blues show, Blue Monday, axed at the same time), and a Facebook support group was started to those ends. The shows were never reinstated and the Facebook support page eventually gave birth to this site and our accompanying Facebook group, both dedicated to shining a light on these same types of issues nationwide.

But now, hallelujah, Larry and both his shows are back on the air! Did KUT’s managers come to their collective senses? Did the loyal fans storm the communications building with pitchforks & torches? Actually, nothing quite so drastic nor as archaic. Instead it looks more & more like it might be the future dawning for the well-thought-out local programming once solidly in the domain of public radio.

At the end of February 2011 Larry made the announcement that he would be returning to the airwaves on KDRP (http://www.kdrplive.org/ ) a nonprofit low power FM community station out of Dripping Springs, TX, a suburb of Austin.  He has his old time slots back on Monday & Thursdays and complete artistic control of his programming, something that was missing the last few years at KUT. But the question does hang in the air: Is such a move a step down for such a legendary figure as Larry Monroe? To really come to grips with that I think a closer look at low power FM (LPFM) as well as community radio is in order.

According to the FCC, LPFM is defined as stations authorized for non-commercial educational broadcasting only (no commercial operations) operating with an effective radiated power of 100 watts or less, with maximum facilities of 100 watts ERP at 30 meters antennae height (http://www.fcc.gov/mb/audio/lpfm/index.html). For those of us technologically challenged, that translates as “you can’t hear it from here.” KDRP lists several small Texas Hill Country communities as being in their signal area as well as “South Austin,” but I would say that individual results will definitely vary. I live in what is considered central Austin and I can’t hear a peep thru my better-than-average home system, have the same results in my car. But I haven’t missed a moment of Larry’s return to the airwaves. The reason for that, of course, is live streaming on the internet. Or, for the ever-growing number of people attached at the waist to their smartphones, there is, as they say, an app for that. So while Larry may be sitting in the control booth down in Dripping Springs, you can listen to his shows here in Central Austin, down in Central America, over in Central France, anywhere that the internet streams lively. Basically, everywhere with a spark of electricity. But since internet radio has been around for a while, a person could be forgiven for thinking there is nothing new to look at here, so let’s take a side step for a moment to look at the community radio aspect of things.

Community radio is generally defined as stations that are owned, operated, and driven by the communities they serve. They are also nonprofit and, perhaps most importantly, they do not accept taxpayer funding from the government. They depend totally on donations from the public and are almost always small low-powered stations such as KDRP. I say “most importantly” due mainly to the current tempest blowing through the country concerning taxpayer funding of NPR, the provider of an ever-increasing amount of programming to the once “public” stations such as KUT, WGBH, or any number of other stations across the country. And to some, one of the biggest destroyers of local programming in existence. But that existence may be on life support right now. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party seems to have made the funding of public broadcasting their cause célèbre lately — just last week the U.S. House voted to defund NPR even tho the Senate had already indicated they would not even take up the issue. But with conservatives feeling the wind at their backs, you can bet this is just the opening salvo. The results of the 2012 elections may well determine the survival of NPR, and any station beholden to them may well find themselves in big trouble. But the little guys, the community-supported LPFM stations, won’t even notice it. Or, in fact, it may well boost their donations as people decide to leave the drab remnants of their old public stations.

So what we have now is a widely renowned DJ, with a worldwide following, broadcasting on a locally funded station with a broadcast range of only a few miles. Except of course for that internet connection, which takes his work to the four corners of the globe. How is  a life-long radio fan to digest such a strange blend of little & big? I can only speak for myself, of course, and I have to admit that at first I had my doubts about such arrangements. Part of that goes back to my original issues with the public stations: I felt that I had been investing in public radio for years only to have the new breed of station managers slam the door in my face. To let up on them for even a second seems too much like admitting defeat. And part of it is my personal belief that only over-the-air broadcasting is true radio; satellite and internet radio seem like odd mutations. But after much thought I’ve decided that maybe this is the future of radio, the perfect alloy of the new and the old. Though KDRP’s actual signal strength is small, Larry Monroe is now capable of reaching a larger audience than Wolfman Jack could only dream of on the old “border radio” mega-stations. And at the same time, anyone spinning the dial down in that Hill Country sweet spot can find him coming out of the speakers with no special equipment and no monthly service charges.

And for me that is the true magic of radio, the idea of new worlds suddenly coming thru that little box. I grew up on the plains of West Texas and remember vividly sitting up late at night twisting the dial of an old radio my mother had given me and hearing things I had never heard before. It made me aware of the larger world around me and nurtured my love of music in all its many forms. Hopefully some night, 10-year-olds in Dripping Springs may be doing the same and hear Larry going from Howlin’ Wolf to Robert Cray to Stevie Ray Vaughan, and those same doors will open for them.

But I am an old man now, and a radio purist at heart. Which if nothing else means I could well be totally wrong. So I am posting this, hoping for some input from our readers. Is community-funded LPFM the dawning of a new future? Or is it a low-rent compromise that we are embracing rather than holding our ground on public radio? All of us here at this site are long-term supporters of public radio; it’s in our name. . . . And I am sure we will want to continue to take the fight to the powers-that-be in the public radio forum. After all, when the dust settles on the current government funding flap, the money grubbers may well hightail it out of town and we’ll get our public stations back to restore to their former glory. But personally I like more and more the idea of starting over — smaller, yet larger.

So let us hear from you. Are there similar stories out there? Is community-supported LPFM a red herring for the fans of public radio? You can be certain that this site will continue our pursuit of those who would twist the true mission of public radio stations to their own desires, but it is my belief that LPFM is going to be filling the gap for quality niche programming more and more going into the future.

Before closing I feel that I should also give a shout out to the good folks over at the Prometheus Radio Project (website: http://www.prometheusradio.org/, Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Prometheus-Radio-Project/12921391882). They have really been carrying the water on LPFM as well as bringing affordable radio technology to communities all over the world. They are well worth checking out and supporting, a true grassroots organization. It was their hard work and dedication that brought about the passing of the Local Community Radio Act that President Obama signed in January of this year. Many kudos and our hats off to them!

Hope to be hearing from you soon!

— Rev Jim

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8 Responses

  1. […] radio journey here in Austin, some of the ups & downs. A lot of this has been chronicled here before, but it’s good to hear Larry tell the story in his own words. And a big hats off to […]

  2. Some good points there, James, and you may well be right. But I have trouble believing that the giants such as Clear Channel will give up their over the air cash cows easily. And I’m not sure how they would sell their advertising on a primarily streaming format. I’m sure it’s possible but I’d bet the big boys would fight it all the way. And for me personally I’d hate to see it. I’m still too much that kid spinning the dial in West Texas looking for something new. Hard to just spin around on the ‘net. Thanks for the interesting ideas!

  3. I am of the belief that, eventually — between 10 and 30 years from now — broadcast radio (and TV) will go away, and the all the RF bandwidth formerly allocated to broadcast will be used to enable high-speed wireless internet. Today’s “streaming option” for radio and TV will become the standard operating mode. This is similar to the AM-FM transition scenario that you will recall: In the beginning, many AM radio operators used their FM transmitters for simulcasting. But eventually, the tables turned. FM became the dominant band and AM the fringe band, often simulcasting the original FM programming, or hosting the niche-market programming that was more commonly found on FM in prior years.

    If I were to start a radio station today — especially on the FM band — I would make sure that the transmitter were just powerful enough to serve a sufficiently large core service area, and then stream the same program to the rest of the world.

  4. […] at KUT Facebook site is worth a read for those not following it. It was in regards to piece posted here by the Reverend Jim on LPFM and Larry Monroe’s new digs on KDRP in Dripping Springs, TX: […]

  5. Great info, Radio God! Buried near the top of this is a mention that there is a cell phone app for KDRP, but since I am still carrying around a dinosaur-era cell I had no first hand information on how well it might work, wasn’t aware that you could jack it into a home system. Maybe it’s time for me to upgrade that cell now…..

  6. If you have an iPhone, you can listen to Larry’s show via their App (free on their website http://www.kdrplive.org). I downloaded it as soon as I heard Larry was returning to the airwaves, and have it plugged up to my home stereo system using a regular AUX input. I even tried it in my car driving around Leander/Cedar Park area and worked perfectly. I used one of those old cassette adapters and plugged up my iPhone to it. My family and I love your shows — keep up the great work!

  7. Thank you! I should clarify that while I am not able to pick up either of those signals here in the Hyde Park area of Austin, part of that could be due to the Sony receiver that I use. While its home theatre section is exemplary I have never been happy with the FM tuner section. It only allows “auto tune,” which rejects any signal below some factory set level. And even with an external antennae it just sails past those frequencies. But I strongly suspect that an analogue tuner would be able to pick up at least some level of signal.

  8. Great points in the article. For those listening to traditional radio, please note that all KDRP programming (including Larry Monroe) is simulcast from the LPFM in the article (at 103.1) to a larger signal at 100.1fm. 100.1FM, an FM signal covering over 600 square miles from Lockhart to Johnson City and areas South and West of Austin.

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