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A signal from and for the people

by John Adamian

By the year’s end a new voice will likely be on the airwaves, broadcasting at the frequency of 102.7 to listeners in northeast Greensboro with local news, community events, commentary, and lots of non-corporate music programming in the form of a fresh people-centric low-power FM station.

If radio listeners were more like foodies, the locally grown content would be a real source of regional pride. But if people consumed and boasted about local media with the same pride that they often trumpet their appreciation for locally sourced tomatoes, regionally brewed beers or spirits distilled in the area, we would be living in a different media landscape, one that wasn’t necessarily dominated by national and local corporate concerns or an absolute focus on the bottom line. Don’t get me wrong — a reverence for profit, efficiency and self-interest are among the things that make this country great. But giving voice to people in the community doesn’t always generate a lot of cash. And it’s not always overseen best by people with corporate offices in other states.

The Greensboro Radio Project is a volunteer labor-of-love effort spearheaded by a core group of about a half dozen people plus a growing number of other eager individuals, all passionate and working to bring a low-wattage community radio station to the area this fall.

The Federal Communications Commission regulates radio and other forms of communication. And they don’t necessarily make it easy to dive in and start broadcasting. But the people at the Greensboro Radio Project have been steadily jumping through the regulatory hoops, getting permits issued and extended, raising funds and spreading the word. The station, when it’s up and running, will broadcast a 100-watt signal, which is pretty miniscule compared to many commercial stations broadcasting at between 25,000 and 100,000 watts. A small coverage radius will help the station keep focused on the community it’s designed to serve. But Dave Reed, the acting chairman of the board of directors for the project, said he hopes the signal will “cover a good chunk of the city.”

Reed spoke with me last week about the vision for the project and the hurdles to starting a low-power radio station.

The plan built up steam back in 2013 when Reed learned, through the Prometheus Radio Project, a group that works to reduce corporate control of the airwaves and to promote social justice through community media and grassroots radio nationwide, that the FCC was opening another filing window for low-power FM permits. This was possibly the last such opportunity for the foreseeable future, and possibly ever.

Reed and the others involved with the project figured the time was right, so they jumped.

“When I was back in college, I did college radio, and I really dug it,” says Reed, 38. “It was fun, but I also think we need more public and community control over the media and the sources of information in our community.”

Despite a few hiccups and stretches of dead air from the FCC — the construction permit was issued in 2014 and then extended. The group now has until the end of next year to build the station. But they hope to complete the project before then.

Reed says there’s no shortage of volunteers interested in helping with the music programming, so he doesn’t expect that offering a dynamic spectrum of music will present a challenge. One of the ideas under discussion involves a selection of non-English-language programming to reflect the diversity of the community.

“We want to work with some of the non-profits here in town,” says Reed. “There are dozens, literally, dozens of languages spoken in Greensboro because of our refugee population. I would also like to reach out to those communities and say ‘Look, does anyone want to have a radio show?'” I don’t think there’s any Vietnamese-language media here in Greensboro at the moment.”

The idea behind vibrant community radio isn’t a topdown vision imposed on area listeners based on focusgroups or profit-and-loss spreadsheets; it’s more of an organic bubbling up from the people.

“Our goal is for people in the community to be able to share their stories and cover events that are going on in Greensboro and the world in a way that relates to them more than what’s going on now,” says Reed.

With all of the bureaucratic paperwork mostly in place, fundraising is now the main focus for the volunteers at the Greensboro Radio Project.

“Now really all we need to do is raise the money and we can get this thing up on the air,” says Reed. Earlier this month, a recent successful fundraiser took the form of local musicians paying tribute to country legend Merle Haggard, who died in April.

The station’s fundraising goals are humble. Since the Greensboro Radio Project relies entirely on volunteer labor, the funds will go exclusively to things like equipment and rent. The group aims to raise $35,000 to get everything built and working and to fund the first year of operations.

“That’s a pretty bare-bones budget,” says Reed. “It’s not a very expensive operation as long as we use volunteer labor.” The second-year budget is $18,000, nearly half of the first, since the equipment and start-up costs will have already been met.

Variables remain. (A web site is set to go up this week at wprg.fm.) But, for now, the station, which is a non-profit organization, has applied for its tax-exempt status with the IRS. Donations can be made right now through the Greensboro Radio Project’s Facebook page. (Donations are not tax-deductible at the moment, but once the station gets the certificate from the IRS those contributions will become retroactively tax-deductible.) Reed says he expects the programming to be streamable online, and some of the shows will get turned into podcasts. The concept will continue to evolve. Listeners and volunteers in the area will help shape the station as it goes live.

“We want this to be a consistent source of information coming out of people in the community,” says Reed. !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.

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