Low-power FM radio stations about to air throughout Arizona

Gabriel Otero, also known as "The Snake,"  talks into the mic informing the public about upcoming events and sending out song dedications to listeners in Tucson, Ariz. on Monday, March 2, 2015. Otero is a dj and program coordinator for KYPT 100.3 FM.  Photographed by Noelle Haro-Gomez
Gabriel Otero, also known as “The Snake,” talks into the mic informing the public about upcoming events and sending out song dedications to listeners in Tucson, Ariz. on Monday, March 2, 2015. Otero is a dj and program coordinator for KYPT 100.3 FM. Photographed by Noelle Haro-Gomez

 Fewer commercials and more tunes and talk are about to hit Arizona’s radio airwaves.

This year 41 low-power non-commercial FM radio stations will launch throughout Arizona, more than tripling the 13 existing low-power stations licensed in 2001.

“And it’s about time,” said Victor Aronow, project manager of KPCR, a new station coming to Phoenix by the Southwest Heritage Foundation of Arizona. SWHF  is an organization involved in promoting the cultural, artistic, social and labor relationships of the Southwest.

New stations are airing this year by Indian tribes, churches, schools and community activists in areas including Scottsdale, Bisbee and Williams.

The boom of low-power FM radio stations is the result of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, which provided a one-month window in Fall 2013 to allow any non-profit group to snap up a frequency. The 2010 Act, proposed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., freed up hundreds of new spots on the dial for LPFM radio stations that were previously safeguarded by commercial broadcasters. Forty-one Arizona stations applied and two were licensed during that window, airing a total of 15 now.

Once an application is accepted, stations are granted a construction permit by the Federal Communications Commission, which are valid for one year. Stations are licensed by the FCC once a studio and equipment are ready to go and the FCC guidelines are met. Then, each station is able to reach listeners within a three- to five-mile radius and operate on a regular basis.

                          

KPCR’s community-based station is located in Hance Park, Phoenix, but still without a tower and frequency. The station will focus on the arts, culture, interests, and diversity of Central Phoenix. Each topic will hold a three-minute slot two or three times a week that covers the latest community topics buzzing around town.

One program targets public safety with the Phoenix Police Department, which will cover road closures, marathons, police action and any new scams people run into. The station is still deciding on a name for the platform, but Aronow hopes to name it “Squad Room” or “Police Beat.”

Other programs include, “Garage Sale Groupie,” where the station will visit garage sales and get people to chat about what they’re selling. “Senior Moments” is another, which will focus on activities that appeal to those 55 and older. The station will cover the state Legislature, too. “Here we’ll recognize the ‘worst bill of the week,’” Aronow said. “I want to call it ‘Lifting the Lid.’”

The First Baptist Church of Williams, Arizona, launched KZBX in March 2014, making it the first LPFM station to be licensed in Northern Arizona, according to Leslie Stevens, owner of the station.

“I’m like a big kid in candy factory,” Stevens said. “And I pay for everything out of my own pocket.”

KZBX broadcasts out of a 15-square-foot metal shed in the First Baptist Church parking lot. “The church said, ‘Use it, just don’t burn it down,’” Stevens said.

There, the station reserves a handful of slots for volunteers to host their own music or talk show throughout the week. Most of the volunteers play music from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, while others discuss religious matters. Mike Roux, who hosts “Hope For The World Ministry” every Friday night, will read sermons on Sundays.

Stop Abortion of Tucson, Arizona, is another religious group hoping to join the LPFM world, but the station is still in the application process, meaning it has not yet been granted a construction permit. Dan Swanson, who sits on the board, said if the station were granted a license, this would open opportunities for people to share their stories.

“There are people who have been on the side of abortion who wish they hadn’t,” he said, adding, “Our goal is not to put up a fight against clinics that support it, but for those people to have a voice.”

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the Hopi Foundation are two of three tribal communities expanding its spot on the dial.

Pascua Yaqui’s existing LPFM station, KPYT, covers the New Pascua community, one of four in Tucson. The new license allows the station to expand its coverage to a second community, Old Pascua, according to Program Coordinator Gabriel Otero, otherwise known as “The Snake.”

Aside from compiling pages of information for the 13 station volunteers to put each show together, Otero also runs his own show called “The Snake Break,” where he plays modern rock twice a week.

“I think it’s cool that we’re not a talk show,” Otero said. “I like to push everyone’s ear a little instead and play music they’re not used to, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers as opposed to old school artists, like AC/DC or Aerosmith.”

Pascua representatives from the health, language, education and police departments all have a program on the show where they share updates on each department.

“What we do is we provide services for people,” Otero said. “All of our jobs serve the people and through our station, everyone can stay connected.”

KUYI Hopi Radio of Upper Moenkoepi was licensed years ago by the Hopi Foundation and though it is not tribally owned, it is the oldest non-profit on the reservation. KUYI was granted a construction permit last year, allowing the station to expand its broadcast range. The foundation and its new partner, Moenkoepi, will now be able to reach more than 1,000 listeners.

“KUYI is one place where [Hopis] can hear all of the local events going on in their own language,” said station manager Richard Davis. “And now we can caution them of harm with microbroadcasting emergency service.”

Jason LeValley of Tucson is launching a new LPFM community radio station called “Downtown Radio,” which has set out to be a non-commercial, community-sponsored rock-n’-roll station for Tucson’s general downtown area.

LeValley hopes to be on the air within the next couple of months. The station was just awarded a construction permit in December, but to be fully licensed, the team will need to apply for a broadcasting license once the station is built.

Pamela Sutherland is a Tucson lawyer who listens to community radio regularly. Sutherland, 52, relies on community stations to curate her music expertise.

“I have this horror of growing old and only listening to ’70s music,” she said. “But community radio keeps me in the know.”

Starting a station means paying for engineering fees, studio equipment and transmitting equipment, which can cost from $12,000 to $15,000, said Allan Gomez, station support director for the non-profit radio activist organization, Prometheus Radio. That doesn’t include recurring costs, such as rent, utilities and other personnel, totaling about $1,000 a month.

Some stations are finding help in their communities. Downtown Radio was gifted its studio space from Sinfonía HealthCare, eliminating both rent and utility costs.

Aronow of KPCR in Phoenix said he is looking forward to seeing the impact of LPFM stations on communities.

“LPFM’s have given women, labor organizations and communities an opportunity to get a foot back in the radio world,” he said. “And I’m excited to see where things go.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a possible name of KPCR’s  police-themed show. It has been updated to the correct name, “Police Beat.” 

Spencer Higgins is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at spencerhiggins@email.arizona.edu.

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