West Philadelphia: Taking Back the Airwaves

WPEB General Meeting
WPEB holds general information meetings on the first Monday of each month.


“Welcome to WPEB 88.1 FM, the first station on your dial. You’re listening to Community Action Magazine, bringing you all the updates on what’s going on in the community and keeping it very real and personal,” said Shirley Randelman, host of Community Action Magazine.

“We talk about things that are happening in the community especially where it deals with business, advocacy and education. We cover a whole potpourri of information,” Randelman said about her show, which airs on Mondays from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. “We try to bring information that people might not be aware of in order to keep the community up-to-date. We want our listeners to be informed so that they can become stakeholders in the community.”

Community Action Magazine is only one of the many programs broadcast by the West Philadelphia Educational Broadcasters (WPEB). The station, which is currently being stewarded by the Scribe Video Center, is located at 52nd Street and Hazel Avenue. Its mission statement declares that they are there to represent, incorporate, empower and serve their community.

“WPEB tries to represent the voiceless community. The ones who are under-represented and misrepresented by the media,” said Renee McBride-Williams, the station’s operations manager.

“The voice of the people is the voice that needs to be heard and we need to have venues for that voice,” said Carolyn Harmon, the co-host of Community Action Magazine. Unfortunately, there are not many local community radio stations in existence to allow neighborhood voices and issues to be heard. In fact, WPEB is Philadelphia’s only licensed Low Power FM radio station.

LPFM was first introduced in 2000, but commercial Full Power FM convinced Congress that LPFM would interfere with signals, which caused Congress to pass a series of regulations on the licensing of LPFM stations. Current regulations state that LPFM stations must have minimum distance from FPFM stations in order to insure protection of FPFM signals. This makes it difficult, especially in urban areas where the radio dial is more saturated, for the FCC to grant LPFM licenses.

According to FCC guidelines, LPFM stations are for noncommercial, educational broadcasting only and must operate with less than 100 watts of effective radiated power. LPFM stations have an approximate service range of only a 3.5 mile radius, which makes them a great outlet for small community radio stations.

Halimah Marcus, the development and communications associate at Prometheus Radio Project, said: “We feel LPFM is important for a number of reasons. There is a real crisis of diversity in media, many outlets are owned by major corporations, and there is a real lack of local representation and discussion of local issues on the radio.”

The Prometheus Project, headquartered in Philadelphia at 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue, is a non-profit organization that builds and advocates for community radio stations. The group provides help to community organizations during the process of getting a license and building a station. The group also coordinate efforts to get the public involved in the FCC regulatory process and  host outreach events to promote awareness and build support for LPFM radio. The Prometheus Radio Project was founded in 1998 out of a pirate radio station that wanted a legal alternative and since then has been grassroots campaigning to “free the airwaves from corporate control,” said Marcus.

WPEB General Meeting
WPEB holds general information meetings on the first Monday of each month.

One of the most recent and important projects of the Prometheus Radio Project is advocating for the Local Community Radio Act, which is currently in the Congress. The bill, which was passed by the House on Dec. 16, 2009, is awaiting a full vote from the Senate. The Local Community Radio Act will eliminate the minimum distance separation requirement. It also ensures that licensing decisions are made based on the needs of the local community.

“We worked closely with the Prometheus Radio Project in drafting this legislation,” said John Diamond, the communications director for Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-Wash.) office. Cantwell is the sponsor of The Local Community Radio Act of 2009.

“The senator has supported this bill because we’ve heard from various groups, schools, churches, community organizations across Washington that want to set up these stations to meet the local community’s needs. We certainly wanted to help and get involved and we were in the position to do so,” Diamond said.

“This bill creates an opportunity for many communities without a voice,” said Rep. Michael Doyle (D-Pa.), who sponsored the House version of the bill. “LPFM only covers a few miles but it is a powerful tool for communities.”

Getting this bill through the House was a huge victory since it has been in the works for over five years. According to Diamond, it is unclear whether the bill will make it to a full vote in the Senate this session.

“We hope it will happen this session, that’s our goal,” said Marcus, “We are confident that it will pass the Senate when the time comes because it has very strong bi-partisan support. It’s hard to say how it will affect Philadelphia, but we hope that more licenses will be given out in the area.”

LPFM and local radio are important not only because they provide communities with a voice but because they will help diversify media as a whole.

Community radio offers people a chance to be themselves and not be forced to conform to societal standards. “People in the margins do not usually make it in the mainstream media unless they change themselves to fit the mainstream. You do not have to do that here at WPEB, and that inspires me,” said Vania Gulston, the station’s programming co-coordinator.

According to Marcus, LPFM will help diversify media ownership.  “When the original licenses were divided up in the ‘30s there was still a lot of segregation, so they were given mostly to white men. It is still basically that way due to economic factors. The radio licenses are expensive.” According to Congress, in 2003 it cost over $2.5 million to acquire a commercial radio station.

Renee McBride-Williams, WPEB's operations manager
Renee McBride-Williams, WPEB's operations manager

In the Local Community Radio Act, Congress finds that “minorities represent almost a third of our population. However, according to the Federal Communication Commission’s most recent Form 323 data on the race and gender of full power, commercial broadcast licensees, minorities own only 7 percent of all local television and radio stations. Women represent more than half of the population, but own only 6 percent of all local television and radio stations. LPFM stations, while not a solution to the overall inequalities in minority and female broadcast ownership, provide an additional opportunity for underrepresented communities to operate a station and provide local communities with a greater diversity of viewpoints and culture.”

Another problem with the current radio situation is media consolidation. “All of these stations sound the same to me these days, LPFM will allow for lots of different voices and lots of different programming,” said Doyle.  LPFM radio can be whatever the community wants and needs it to be.

G-Town Radio, located in Germantown, found another solution to the radio problem: the Internet. The station is an Internet-only radio station that broadcasts solely over the Internet. Owner Jim Bear has never applied for an FCC license because of all of the complications involved in getting one.

“If the bill gets passed we might be interested,” said Bear. “It would still require a lot of money to get set up and you would have to follow FCC standards. But we would be able to reach the community much easier.”

Bear believes that the Internet is a great starting point for people and organizations that want to start a radio station. “There are fewer barriers to entry,” he said, “And, the studio environment is identical for internet and broadcast. It’s a great way to get practice and get your name out there.” Bear thinks that finding an audience on the internet first could make it easier to raise the money needed to start an FM station.

Also, Bear believes that since people can access Internet radio from mobile devices it may be the way of the future. “As the Internet matures and networks become better it will be just as easy for people to access Internet radio as it is to access traditional radio.”

“By offering an alternative voice, something different, it messes with people’s imaginations,” said Gulston, “It lets them know that something else it possible.”

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