For years, Jason Togyer had become increasingly disenchanted with news coverage of his McKeesport home. The daily newspapers covered only so much outside Pittsburgh's city limits, and radio and TV stations barely reported on community news at all. Most of the time, says Togyer, a former Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter, they only visited communities like Duquesne or McKeesport if there was a shooting or a fire.
"Maybe [listeners] know what's going on in Washington, D.C.," says Togyer, "but they don't know what's going on in Washington, Pa., because they're not getting local news."
So Togyer sought to create a media outlet of his own, joining with a handful of other local residents to create Lightning Community Broadcasting. The goal: to launch a low-power FM radio station -- a non-commercial broadcast station with no more than 100 watts of power -- that could cover events in the hardscrabble communities of Pittsburgh's forgotten river valleys.
But Lightning didn't strike even once.
In 2001, Congress imposed stiff regulations on low-power FM frequencies. Ever since, the few thousand other community-broadcasting hopefuls around the country have been denied access to the airwaves.
"The great LPFM screwing," Togyer calls Congress's move. "I remember it well. ... We got as far as looking [for a place to locate the studio]. Then we took it in the neck."
Togyer later turned to the Internet as a media alternative: He now reports community news on his McKeesport-focused Web site, tubecityonline.com. But LPFM advocates have continued to press their cause -- and a local congressman is leading the charge.
Last month, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Swissvale) re-introduced the Local Community Radio Act of 2009, which would remove some of the stiff regulations placed on LPFM stations.
"[LPFM stations] are a valuable resource," says Doyle, who estimates that up to 3,000 stations nationwide could be granted licenses if the bill passes. "Congress needs to act."
Or more precisely, to undo its previous actions.
The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the airwaves, began issuing licenses for LPFM stations in 2000. According to Andalusia Knoll, a support organizer for Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, the commission didn't have much of a choice. In the late 1990s, pirate radio stations began cropping up all over the country, she says: Creating LPFM stations was a way for the FCC to regulate these new voices.
But major broadcasters opposed the move. And when they want to get their message out, they have a much larger megaphone.
In 2000, the same year the FCC began issuing licenses, commercial radio and TV stations contributed more than $7 million to candidates running for national office. That was nearly triple the amount broadcasters gave in the previous election cycle, and nearly $1 million of the money came from the National Association of Broadcasters, the industry's trade group, alone.
The following year, elected officials in Congress undermined the FCC's approach. Legislators prevented low-power stations from broadcasting on what's known as the "third-adjacent frequency" to an existing broadcaster. In other words, if there is a full-power station on the dial at 85.3 FM, an LPFM station was prohibited from using the signal at 85.1, 84.9 and 84.7, as well as 85.5, 85.7 and 85.9.
"That third click is really crucial because ... there aren't many available frequencies," says Knoll, who used to volunteer as a disc jockey for local radio stations like WRCT 88.3, which is housed at Carnegie Mellon University.
In fact, according to the FCC, Congress' restrictions reduced the number of potential LPFM stations by roughly 80 percent.
At the time, Congress said its LPFM restrictions could be lifted, pending the results of a federally funded study of the stations' impact. In 2003, that report was completed -- and it concluded that many of the interference concerns were overblown. The report, which found that low-power signals weren't strong enough to disrupt full-power stations, suggested that LPFM stations be allowed to occupy the third click on the radio dial, and the FCC agreed.
But, Knoll says, "That was 2003 -- it's 2009. [Congress] still hasn't lifted that restriction."
"LPFM could have a dramatic effect on creating unity" in communities, says Larry Berger, executive director of WRCT's Saturday Light Brigade, a family-focused radio program broadcast every Saturday. "It allows new voices."
Thanks to media consolidation and diminishing commitment to local markets, he adds, "We have stations not serving their communities."
Radio ownership has become increasingly consolidated since ownership restrictions were loosened in the mid-1990s. Clear Channel, for example, owns half-dozen radio stations in Pittsburgh alone ... and City Paper's corporate family includes two local radio stations of its own.
While many NPR stations, like Pittsburgh's WDUQ, do offer local news, Knoll says they don't offer local residents the opportunity to take part in putting those broadcasts together.
"So many people say, 'Yeah, there are NPR stations in our area, but ... we can't be involved in them," says Knoll. "They don't feature our local news or local voices.'"
Not everyone is waiting for Congress to act. Some local folks are settling for low-power stations on the AM dial.
Broadcasting on an AM frequency requires much less power, and creates less potential for interference. So low-power stations on AM get a lot less static from the government too.
Next month, for example, Ron Gaydos hopes to launch an AM radio station to broadcast local programming -- news, commentary, kids' shows -- to residents of Braddock, Rankin and Swissvale. The project, called Community 2.0, is part of an outreach effort by the Tri Boro Development Forum, a local alliance of community organizations.
"We want to facilitate deeper and broader community relationships," says Gaydos, who plans to locate a low-power AM transmitter at the Rankin Bridge. "So many people want to know what's happening" in their towns.
They'll have to listen carefully: Gaydos' station will broadcast with only one-tenth of a watt of power, as opposed to the 100 watts available on LPFM. (By contrast, KDKA-AM broadcasts with a 50,000-watt signal.)
The community station "doesn't have a really long range," Gaydos admits. "It's just a few hundred yards."
"We're not opposed to low-power FM," says Kris Jones, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "It's not a matter of opposing competition or alternative voices." But full-power stations fear "opening up [the radio spectrum] to a potential interference disaster."
Government studies discounting interference are "flawed," he says, because they don't pay enough attention to local fluctuations in broadcast strength.
Tests conducted by the NAB, Jones contends, found a "Swiss-cheese effect."
"In some areas, you may not be subjected to interference, but when you get into areas where LPFM signals out-strengthen full-power [signals], you're going to be subjected to interference. And that's not good for anybody."
The bill could cause "unintended harm to existing signals," agrees Scott Hanley, WDUQ's general manager and a board member for NPR.
According to Hanley, opening up the third-adjacent frequency to LPFM would be more problematic in suburban and rural markets, where stations rely on translator service to get signals, rather than urban markets, which get their signals directly from the main radio transmitter. Translators serve to relay signals beyond cities' primary coverage area.
"[WDUQ] is probably going to be OK," he says. "But we don't want to lose our fringe audiences."
So far, the larger broadcasters have had their way. But Doyle is optimistic that he'll be able to pass the Local Community Radio Act of 2009, despite Congress's jam-packed agenda. He notes that Republican Sen. John McCain introduced a parallel bill in the Senate last month, and says it should get a vote during this session of Congress.
"I feel pretty good about it," Doyle says. The NAB "is a tough lobby sometimes. ... We will have our work cut out for us."
- Airwave restrictions are making it difficult for community groups to start low-power FM stations. But as the restrictions are being debated, Braddock community members Michael Tobias, Vicki Vargo, Jim Kidd and Ron Gaydos (pictured, from left) are launching a low-power AM station.