FCC approves new community radio station in northeast Greensboro

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by Eric Ginsburg

The Federal Communications Commission has granted a construction permit for a new, low-power FM radio station, paving the way for a community-run outlet in northeast Greensboro.

More than a year has passed since a small group of Greensboro residents applied for the right to take to the airwaves, but last week they finally received some good news. As part of a nationwide, once-in-a-lifetime move, the Federal Communications Commission opened up frequencies to new, noncommercial ventures to broadcast low-power radio stations. And if all goes as planned, Greensboro will be one of the cities with a new outlet on the air.

Largely due to urging from Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based organization that “builds participatory radio as a tool for social justice organizing and a voice for community expression,” the FCC agreed to open existing available frequencies for groups like the one in Greensboro to come in.

“One of the reasons why the FCC was convinced to open this window for community groups to do this came about largely after Hurricane Katrina,” said Dave Reed, one of the organizers of the Greensboro initiative. Low-power FM radio stations were more agile than their clunky commercial counterparts, able to get back on the air more quickly and broadcast vital information, Reed said, underscoring the important role that such a station can play.

With the help of Prometheus, the Greensboro Radio Project filed an application last fall to broadcast on 102.7 FM. Another applicant in the area also sought the same frequency, but after some 11th hour changes were made to their competitor’s application, the Greensboro Radio Project was quickly approved to broadcast from northeast Greensboro.

Reed and a small group of other residents persevered through the somewhat arduous process because of their strong desire to create a new community resource, but also because radio is just cool, they said.

Matty Sheets, a stalwart in Greensboro’s music scene and one of the hosts of “Avant on Air” on UNCG’s WUAG radio station, wanted to seize on this limited opportunity.

“This might be the last time that this becomes available to people,” Sheets said. “Corporations own all the airwaves. Radio used to be a service. Now radio is doing the public a disservice. It’s dumbing down. It’s the same playlists. The classic-rock playlists are the same as they were when we were the kids. Pop songs are the same anywhere in the country. It’s just crazy. That’s not what radio is supposed to be.”

Sheets enjoys his show on WUAG, but sees this opportunity as exponentially better.

“College radio is great but it’s always going to be attached to another entity: the university,” he said. “Ideally ours will be connected with all different facets of Greensboro. There are so many people that are into so many different things here that I think it could be really eclectic programming where you’re not sure what you’re going to get.”

Mo Kessler, who works at the YWCA and has been involved in various community organizing efforts including the Renaissance Community Co-op grocery store in northeast Greensboro, is excited about the proposition of a democratically-operated and accessible radio station that can amplify existing work being done. She’s been impressed by what Sheets and others have done with “Avant on Air,” having spoken on the show about police accountability several times. And she’s excited about what that could look like at a full station rather than a weekly show could look like.

There are already a lot of organizations in the city generating content, Kessler said, such as the Greensboro Voice newspaper affiliated with the Interactive Resource Center and run by people experiencing homelessness. This station, which will broadcast at close to 100 watts, can be a tool to reach a broader audience, she said.

The trio, who are the core organizers of the Greensboro Radio Project, plans to open up the organization to broader participation as soon as possible, saying that they purposefully held off on outreach until they knew that the FCC would give them the green light. While the immediate next steps aren’t yet clear, Reed said they’ll continue to work with Prometheus and begin organizing at the beginning of 2015.

The Greensboro Radio Project, which will likely rename itself once it receives call letters, aims to be an eclectic outlet with a minimal threshold for participation. The organizers talk about programming in Spanish or Vietnamese and express interest in handing over equipment to community members to create their own content. The possibilities seem endless.

Kessler is interested in working with middle and high school girls, as she does with her job at the YWCA, to create content. And she referenced a potential science talk show as well. There is a requirement in the application to the FCC that a percentage of the programming be locally produced, something that Reed and others agree will be no problem to meet.

They couldn’t be more excited.

“There’s a cool factor that radio has that other mediums don’t,” Reed said. “It’s like magic. You can broadcast these radio waves through the air. It will be so cool to have people come in and to help them create shows. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Reed hosted a radio show when he was a college student in Tennessee, and said he doesn’t even know how to explain why it was fun, sitting there in a room alone, usually late at night, other than to say that it has an inherent cool feeling.

There are several reasons to locate the station in northeast Greensboro beyond just where space is available on the radio dial, Reed said. There’s a very strong, active community there, one that has organized around the White Street Landfill in the past and is now coalescing around the Renaissance Community Co-op in the middle of a food desert. A recording studio was built into the McGirt Horton Library, suggesting a strong interest in media creation in the area. And there are a glut of empty warehouse spaces that could possibly function as a studio, he said.

Plus, he and Kessler bought a house in northeast Greensboro off of East Wendover Avenue earlier this year, and Sheets lives with them.

It’s unclear how far the signal will reach, Reed said, but the wattage will be about as strong as a college radio station, and even stronger than WUAG.

They know it still won’t be an easy task to go about physically setting up the station and to gain the level of community buy-in they’re hoping for. Sheets expects they’ll need to raise about $30,000 for the radio equipment. At the Grassroots Radio Conference in Iowa, which he attended earlier this year, he learned about a slate of things that go into a station he hadn’t thought of, such as soundproofing ductwork in the studio.

But the biggest hurdle — FCC approval — is behind them, and with the connections Sheets made at the conference and the network the trio has in Greensboro, they’re confident that a community-run 102.7 FM will come to fruition.

The Greensboro Radio Project is planning a community interest meeting for people who want to be involved on any level, be it hosting a show, setting up the station or training people with audio equipment. No date is set, but find GSO Radio Project on Facebook or email [email protected] for more information.