Community Radio: Are you listening?
By Jean Godden
The low power radio movement is flourishing here in Puget Sound. The Seattle area alone boasts seven operating stations. Spin your FM dial in the 80-100 FM range and you're likely to stumble onto one of these hyperlocal stations.
As local media keeps shrinking -- we just bid farewell to the Seattle Weekly's print edition -- these frequencies matter more than ever. They give local groups a permanent home in the media landscape and provide a forum for debate about important local issues.
For those who think the terrestrial signal (communication via the atmosphere) is old technology, consider this: A Pew Research Center survey recently put radio listenership in the United States at 91 percent of the population. And NPR stations, outlets like KUOW land KNKX, reached an all -time high of 37.4 million listeners in recent surveys.
Among low-power stations on air nearby are KVRU at 105.7 FM in Rainier Valley; KMGP at 101.1 FM in Magnuson Park; KHUH at 104.9 FM in the Central District; KBFG at 103.7 FM in Ballard; KVSH at 101.9 FM on Vashon Island; KXSU at 102.1 FM from Seattle University; and KODZ at 96.9 FM in the University District.
These stations typically span a 3 1/2 mile distance, providing the signal isn't blocked by a commercial station or physical obstacle. In the Seattle, hills and valleys can make reception erratic. Much depends on antenna location. (The low-power FM station in Tacoma put its antenna in a tree.)
These hyperlocal stations give audiences more choices, an opportunity to hear things that commercial radio stations and even local NPR stations would not have time nor interest in carrying.
Major credit for making these low-frequency FM stations available goes to Senator Maria Cantwell, who partnered with the late Sen. John McCain to broker a plan to bring greater access to the marketplace. The senators sponsored legislation that passed Congress in 2010.
I know just enough to be dangerous about low-power FM. I have been moonlighting on KMGP, broadcasting from Magnuson Park. After a five-way competition, the station's license was awarded to a non-profit community sponsor, SPACE (short for Sand Point Arts and Cultural Exchange). SPACE manages the Magnuson Park Gallery and now broadcasts as SPACE101.1 FM. Once the SPACE application was successful, Juliana Royer capped her advocacy efforts and accepted the job of station manager.
Shortly after the station's debut in 2018, former Seattle City Councilmember Sue Donaldson and I began hosting a once-a-week interview program. We call our program "The Bridge" partly because Seattle is a city of bridges, home to 130 of them. Our program connects listeners to their neighbors, their community and to life in the Northwest. Donaldson doubles as broadcast engineer on our program, having learned the board when she moderated a children's radio show in the Eastern U.S.
Our program debuted in April, 2018, first featuring former Councilmember Nick Licata talking about his book "Becoming a Citizen Activist." In the past 18 months, the program, which broadcasts from 3-4 pm. on Thursdays, has introduced a broad assortment of fascinating guests.
Donaldson and I talked to Cathy Allen, president of Women and Democracy, about the Me-Too movement; we interviewed Chris Curtis, who organized the first neighborhood farmers markets; we learned about the University YMCA's development plans, and we were first to interview editorial Cartoonist David Horsey when he returned home to work for the Seattle Times.
Because our program is broadcast during non-prime-time afternoons, we set up a website so listeners can access the program at their convenience. Previously aired Bridge programs are available at Thebridgeseattleradio.com.
We owe much to Senator Cantwell for her work to make community radio a reality. But today it is the hardworking volunteers at Puget Sound low-power stations who deserve thanks for their heroic efforts at scrounging equipment and space and providing a platform for community conversation. For a treat, visit your local station and, if you can, donate to keep it running.