Airwaves up for grabs: Enviro group makes bid for grassroots radioWritten by Quintin Ellison
The Canary Coalition, a nonprofit group rooted in Jackson County that fights for air quality, might soon take to the airwaves via its own educational, community radio station.
Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, believes a local radio station would provide the entire environmental community in Western North Carolina with its own forum, plus open educational and networking opportunities for those involved. A range of community-oriented programs by other nonprofits could be included, and local musicians featured, Friedman said. A more complete vision of the future community radio station still must be hammered out, he said.
In a newsletter announcement last week to The Canary Coalition’s members, Friedman noted: “The organization’s leaders view this an opportunity to bring the public educational and advocacy mission of the Canary Coalition to a new level of effectiveness. This will be a radio station that offers programming found nowhere else, delivering in-depth coverage of environmental issues and news.”
Friedman added that in his view, the environmental and social progress community has little voice in a world of corporate-owned mass media.
“Important events, demonstrations, public hearings, discussions, debates and informational forums are often ignored by the conventional media or relegated to small back page, one-time articles that may even miss the point entirely. Even public radio stations have been less than forthcoming with covering the news and events organized by local nonprofits,” he wrote.
There are, at rough count, at least 34 environmental organizations based in WNC. If The Canary Coalition successfully launches its radio station, it could open the region’s airwaves to issues that are of interest to other nonprofits as well, empowering the grassroots movement in WNC as never before.
That’s because The Canary Coalition’s radio station wouldn’t be a dinky, low-powered station with a broadcast reach of a measly two blocks or so.
The Federal Communications Commission has given The Canary Coalition the OK for a full-powered FM station. Regional radio experts say the station could potentially broadcast to a three-state audience, depending on where the transmitter is placed. The radio station would be based in Dillsboro, frequency 95.3 FM (for two decades where listeners in WNC have found public radio WCQS, see accompanying story).
“We view this as an opportunity to provide that voice for the environmental community,” Friedman said one day last week in a cell phone interview as he headed to Washington, D.C., to take part in a protest against a pipeline that would connect oil sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Port Arthur, Texas.
In an application filed with the FCC, The Canary Coalition promised to “coordinate with local educational institutions, community health, environmental, social and cultural organizations and the business community on developing programming for the station. In addition, it will broadcast cultural programming including musical content relevant to the population of the service area, as well as local news, public affairs programming and public service announcements.”
Friedman, a Bronx native, is a fixture in the WNC environmental movement. Friedman studied political science at Hunter College, and has been a grassroots activist since the late 1960s. Friedman, a Sylva resident, ran unsuccessfully — twice — against Democrat Rep. Phil Haire for the right to represent Jackson, Macon, Swain and Haywood counties in the state House.
He is unapologetically liberal, even perhaps something of a radical, at least by many mountain residents’ standards. He was arrested twice for protesting Duke Energy’s Cliffside coal plant, once in front of the governor’s mansion and once in front of Duke’s headquarters in Charlotte.
If the FCC issues a construction permit (Western Carolina University wants to wrest the frequency away from the nonprofit, see accompanying article), Friedman and The Canary Coalition would have a three-year window to study what programming to offer, and how to get the radio station actually up and running.
Larry Nestler, who chairs the nonprofit’s board, said he believes a radio station could serve both as a source of revenue for The Canary Coalition, and “as a way of getting the word out on soliciting help on getting clean air.”
Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville, which operates the low-powered MAIN-FM 103.5, said in his group’s case the Internet Service Provider side of MAIN subsidizes the radio station. The technical staff essentially has done double duty for the ISP and the station, Bowen said.
The Canary Coalition has even shallower pockets than MAIN. This would be noncommercial radio — minus paid advertisements — so listener contributions and grants would most likely have to sustain the operation in Dillsboro, Bowen said.
What it would take
The Prometheus Radio Project, a national group promoting community-based radio, estimates that a “minimalist” studio can cost only $4,000 (not including furniture), depending on how much equipment is donated. A high-end studio, however, can cost as much as $100,000.
Friedman estimated it would cost about $50,000 to buy the needed equipment, hire some staff and get the radio station started. In a recent newsletter, he urged members to consider supporting the effort with cash donations.
Friedman told the nonprofit’s members that “if and when we overcome this challenge (from WCU) and gain the FCC license, we look forward to a new era when The Canary Coalition can serve the community in a new and spectacular manner, broadcasting news and information about air quality, climate change, new developments in the renewable energy and efficiency economy transformation. News of the Fukishima catastrophe and other nuclear accidents will not be blacked out in our region, on this station. Listeners will learn about the realities of hydraulic fracturing (or hydro-fracking). There will be no corporate tampering with this news. The facts will be presented, discussed and debated.”
Why this frequency?
In 2007, in a relatively rare event, the FCC accepted applications from community groups across the nation seeking full power, noncommercial radio licenses. A second round of applications took place last year.
There were a limited number of these new FCC licenses to go around — only in areas with open bandwidth on the radio dial, and only for nonprofit, community radio stations.
The idea was to open up the airwaves to non-corporate interests and encourage citizen access and community participation, said Wally Bowen, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) in Asheville.
Bowen, a nationally known advocate for local ownership of media infrastructure, was on the lookout for just such an opportunity. Bowen’s group already operates MAIN-FM 103.5, a low-powered FM radio station that bills itself as “The Progressive Voice of the Mountains” and is based in Asheville.
As Bowen followed the FCC’s release of new frequencies, he discovered there indeed would be one in the mountains, but not in Asheville — it was being issued in Dillsboro.
“We didn’t qualify, because we are Asheville-based,” Bowen said. “But I immediately thought of The Canary Coalition. This was a golden opportunity, and there are folks (including MAIN) who have the experience to help them.”
He called Avram Friedman, executive director of The Canary Coalition, and the idea of Canary Coalition radio was born.