What’s the frequency?

How to launch a community radio station


The revolution may not be televised, but broadcasting it over the radio is another matter altogether. And with ouRevolution Radio, local David Max is working to bring both revolution and evolution to Missoula’s airwaves.

The time is ripe for launching a noncommercial, full-power, community FM radio station that would broadcast throughout Missoula, he says.

“There’s a desire out there for unfiltered content and media that’s not being fulfilled,” says Max, who envisions volunteer DJs hosting a wide variety of music, news, talk and call-in shows.

“My goal is to create a focusing point for the dissemination of information that’s important to our community. First and foremost, it would be a place where information that’s not currently represented in the corporate media can be shared…it would be another outlet where local creativity and expression can be shared with the rest of the community.”

With a preliminary engineering study in hand, a name and a budding support network, Max is now taking ouRevolution Radio to the next level by broadening public involvement and organizing a fund-raising campaign to finance a final engineering study that will pin down the details necessary to actually obtain a station permit.

Timing is critical, he says, because sometime in spring 2007 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will open a licensing window for applying to create new full-power noncommercial educational (NCE) radio stations for the first time since 2000. When that happens, groups will have a brief opportunity to submit completed applications proving the viability of their public radio projects. Competition is likely to be stiff since the FCC restricts NCE stations to frequencies between 88.1 MHz and 91.9 MHz on the FM dial, and many of those channels are already taken. In Missoula, for instance, Montana Public Radio’s KUFM and the University of Montana’s KBGA are examples of existing NCEs.

If Missoula doesn’t reserve a new frequency to host community radio this time around, Max says, it may never happen, because it’s impossible to predict when the FCC may again open a licensing window, and once the airwaves are full, they’re full.

“The NCE band in Missoula is very saturated at this point and it’s clear in everyone’s mind that if we don’t do this now, it will become completely saturated,” he says.

Last fall, Max hired engineer Michael Brown of Portland’s Brown Broadcasting to conduct a preliminary study exploring whether there’s space for a new NCE in Missoula. And at a Jan. 18 meeting, Max told a group of about 15 interested Missoulians that Brown found it is possible, but there’s likely to be competition for the available signals, likely from religious broadcasters.

Since Missoula doesn’t have a standalone community radio station, Max says if Missoula can pull together a good proposal it would likely succeed, since the FCC favors local, community-oriented stations when considering competing applications.

Max’s efforts have grown out of the wilted dream he once had of returning Air America, a left-wing commercial national talk-radio station, to Missoula after the local affiliate was pulled in February 2006 after floundering financially. He says the revival effort died because commercial signals are much more expensive—they auction for up to $1 million—and just as scarce as noncommercial signals.

In fall 2006, after the FCC announced its upcoming licensing window, two former Missoulians who now run Idaho’s Radio Free Moscow called Max to recommend that Missoula apply.

“When we first heard about the licensing window, [Missoula] was the first city we thought about,” says Leigh Robartes, a founder and station manager of Radio Free Moscow. “I think it would be a good fit because a certain number of people aren’t totally satisfied with the radio output there.”

Moscow’s community station has been on-air since late 2004 and has about 40 DJs hosting shows on any given week. The station won a grant to launch a news department and now features a nightly news segment, as well as shows featuring recorded and live music, local commentaries, university lectures and city meetings. It also airs noncommercial syndicated shows such as Pacifica Radio’s “Democracy Now!” that feature national and international news.

While the first study of ouRevolution Radio’s viability cost only $250, a final engineering study that would establish a transmitter site and other FCC-required details will cost between $2,000 and $3,000. Max says his immediate goal is to raise that money, organize the group’s structure and pursue affiliation with an existing nonprofit in Missoula. If the FCC grants a license, Max says it would cost between $20,000 and $200,000 to get a studio up and running, but there’s plenty of work to be done before Max even starts worrying about that.

“It’s such an exciting time for people to get involved because we’re just figuring out what to include and where to take this,” Max says. “We’re still in the process of creating a community vision for what we want—it’s a time that people can come out and get involved and make a difference.”

Max sees creating a community radio station in Missoula as part of a larger battle to return to the average person access and control of a media that’s been hoarded by mainstream corporate entities.

“Community radio is one of the last places in our democracy where citizens really have an opportunity to have a voice,” he says. “And having the ability to…be heard without censorship is extremely important.”

Max says the station’s name evokes this effort to progress toward a responsive and accessible media, and locals inclined to admit defeat to mainstream media should seize this opportunity to create their own alternative.

“People know what’s going on with corporate ownership of media and some people have given up,” Max says. “That’s exactly what we need not to do. I’ve channeled my frustration and desire for something else into this effort, and I know there are other people out there who feel the way I do.”

ouRevolution Radio’s next meeting will be held Wed., Jan. 31, at 7:30 p.m. in the Missoula Public Library’s small meeting room.


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