You’re On the Air!
My greatest personal satisfaction in a long public broadcasting career has come from building a radio station from scratch. Flipping the switch and filling that empty space on the radio dial with brand new sounds for the very first time — nothing can match it.
I’m close to social security age now, but signing my first station on the air in 1975 was one of the biggest thrills of my life.
My first radio station was WAIF 88.3 FM in Cincinnati, one of a wave of community stations in Atlanta, Madison, Memphis, St. Louis, Tampa and elsewhere that hit the airwaves between 1970 and 1980 as part of the counter-culture and anti-Vietnam War era, guided in part by Lorenzo Milam and Jeremy Lansman’s irreverent station-building guide “Sex and Broadcasting.” We were licensed to Stepchild Radio of Cincinnati, Inc. and our bumper stickers read “Out of the Ordinary Radio.”
Building a radio station takes a serious commitment. First, you have to set-up a non-profit organization so you can legally apply for a broadcast license and also raise money. At the same time, you have to do a technical search to find an open frequency on the FM dial, plus locate a real physical place to put a transmitter and antenna. Then you are ready to fill out an FCC application requesting the frequency, and the FCC sits on it for months while they make sure everything meets their requirements.
In the meantime, you become a community organizer, holding a gazillion meetings to plan station operations, implement decision-making, devise programming schedules, scout out broadcasting equipment and studio locations, and ask people to give you money for a radio station that is just an idea and doesn’t exist yet. You are also holding your breath and hoping no other group has the same idea and applied for the same frequency.
Then, maybe a year later, you get a one-page letter from the FCC with your call letters and permission to build- success!!! With Construction Permit (CP) in hand, now you have to begin organizing in earnest – hiring engineers to hang the antenna and install the transmitter, finding and outfitting a studio, recruiting programmers and volunteers, and asking even more people for even more money.
A simple build-out might take nine months, but 18 months of construction time is pretty common. At WAIF, after getting our CP, it took us about a year to get everything plugged in and ready to go.
A few weeks before our official sign-on, I was in the control room while our ace engineer was 10 floors up in the transmitter room, testing the remote controls. It was 5:00am, and when he gave me the signal, I opened the mic and gave a legal ID to sign the station on the air for the very first time. Then before putting on some music, I gave out the phone number, not imagining anyone would actually hear it.
But the phone rang instantly. It was a total shock. The man who called lived more than 15 miles away, and he had heard our test broadcast by chance while dial-surfing. That was when it hit me — ‘controlling the airwaves’ was no longer an abstract concept, we had that power for real. We had actually built a real radio station, where local folks would make the programming and people would actually listen, and it was ours to operate forever or at least as long as we wanted. It was more than thrilling; it was a revelation.
It still is. There are more than 800 community radio stations on the air today, running largely on volunteer labor and local support, and it is still gives me chills to share that moment of true excitation the very first time a community tunes in and can hear its own voice over an ordinary radio.
Sometime this fall (before the elections,) the FCC will open up a window to accept applications for new low-power community radio stations. These stations are generally inexpensive to build and simple to operate, and there will be room for thousands of frequencies around the country.
It will probably be one of the very last chances to get a frequency on the regular FM dial, so it’s not too late for a community group or local organization to have the thrill of starting their own radio station.
For those prepared for the long game, I highly recommend it.
When she is not helping build infrastructure for community media groups or managing digital technology projects, Nan Rubin produces segments for Beyond the Pale, a weekly program of progressive Jewish culture and politics on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica Radio in New York. She is also Chair of the Board of the Prometheus Radio Project, where you can get lots of information and support for how to apply for a new radio station.