Portland radio fans galled by the city's dull, corporation-cluttered FM dial now have a sliver of hope. As soon as next spring, the Federal Communications Commission plans to accept applications for new, noncommercial FM stations for the first time in six years.
That prospect has mobilized a loose coalition of radio enthusiasts who want to hear more creative, locally focused programming on Portland's airwaves. That group includes activists from the Portland Radio Authority, a former pirate station that broadcast illegally at 96.7 FM for three years before the FCC forced it off the air this spring.
Those behind the new effort to create a legal, nonprofit local station face a tricky obstacle course. The metro area's radio spectrum is already jam-packed; radio engineer Gray Haertig, who helped nonprofit KBOO get its start in the late '60s, say there's "zero" chance that a new non-commercial station will be heard in Portland for that very reason.
But those prospects haven't dampened the dream of a radio station dedicated to Portland music. Jeff Simmons, station manager for the Portland Radio Authority (now a legal Internet radio operation), says he's been at work for a year on a plan to use a radio tower southeast of Portland to beam a signal into the city.
Simmons says preliminary studies show a station broadcasting from Mount Hood, possibly licensed in Welches, Ore., would be able to slice the clutter of the metro airwaves and serve the city from 48 miles away.
That plan would mimic what other recent additions to Portland's FM lineup have had to do. Christian broadcasting company Salem Communications snuck 104.1 The Fish into the metro area by licensing the station in Scappoose while broadcasting from the West Hills.
Simmons is working on a feasibility study with help from California radio advocacy group Commonfrequency.org, and he's on the hunt for other help. He knows the road ahead won't be easy. As one of PRA's on-air hosts, Simmons learned firsthand the danger of tangling with the FCC (see "Shipwrecked," WW, March 8, 2006). The FCC shut down the station in April, and the organization barely survived to return to its current, legal status as an Internet station. (Simmons took over as PRA's manager after the shutdown.)
If the FCC decides Simmons' current bid is just an effort to legitimize the old pirate station, the application will probably be turned down flat.
"It's important for people to know that PRA is not going to be the organization that'll be taking this over," Simmons says. "It'll be a new nonprofit that's interested in doing it from the ground up. "
But beside the pirate angle, Simmons and the new organization face tough competition from the religious broadcasting community, which has gobbled up a big chunk of local FM openings in recent years.
Ginny Z. Berson, vice president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, has been working to help Indian tribes establish low-power FM stations as the slots open up, but has seen a good number go to national Christian organizations with the help of big money and high-powered lawyers. She expects the God squad to chase the new, noncommercial frequencies, too.
"The religious right has a huge network of radio stations," Berson says. "About half of the new low-powered stations are licensed to Christian church organizations, and they have a lot of full-powered stations. I'm sure they're going to want these."