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Radio station licenses sought

New Hampshire Union Leader

November 30. 2013 11:03PM

Community activists, religious groups, local fire departments and former broadcasters are among the folks who have gotten in line to pick up licenses for more than a dozen new radio stations in New Hampshire.

But they won't become media moguls. They are seeking Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval for low-powered, noncommercial radio licenses that will be placed on the FM dial between their full-fledged, full-powered, fully commercialized broadcast cousins.

The FCC recently opened a window for community groups to apply for special low-power FM broadcast licenses (LPFM) as a way to give a media voice to underserved communities and populations.

Nate Alberts is a member of North Country Educational Radio, which wants a license for a low-powered FM station in Littleton. He caught the noncommercial radio bug while living in Colorado.

"I just realized what a vital part of the community it was, that having a community radio station in a town was just as important as having a library," Alberts said. "I thought that was very cool."

While community groups are behind most of the New Hampshire applications, there is a broad spectrum of proposed users.

The municipal governments in Bedford, Nashua, Pelham and Londonderry are seeking frequencies to be used for providing information to the public in emergency situations.

Religious groups, such as Living Word Ministries of Charlestown and St. Joseph Catholic Family Center of Manchester, want to get into radio broadcasting and have proposed broadcasting assortments of religious messages. The Boys and Girls Club of the North Country wants to add radio to its educational offerings for members.

And Neskaya Movement Arts Center of Franconia believes that radio can help "educate the public about well-being and movement arts," according to its application. The group would offer music education and programs of local interest to the people of Franconia.

Perry Williams of Lyman, a consultant to Neskaya and other applicants, said applying for one of the open frequencies is the first step. Many applicants used a tool available on the FCC website to find open frequencies in their location.

Williams expects uncontested applicants for frequencies to get their licenses fairly quickly, at least by federal government standards, so they can begin construction.

"They'll have to come up with hardware, buy a transmitter, specify an antenna," Williams said.

Costs could hit $10,000 to $15,000, but some applicants will do it for less.

Paul Hunter of North Shore Community Radio of Candia is a veteran broadcast engineer who started his career as a technician in the early days of TV Channel 9 in Manchester. The combination of his technical background and some equipment he's collected over 36 years in the industry will mean New Hampshire Community Radio will be able to start a Candia station for less than the costs that will face other applicants.

"I have most of the equipment through my life of collecting, and I can get some donations of some equipment," he said. "We're hoping to maybe set up a small studio. If one of the schools wishes, they could be involved with that."

The Candia group's application says the station would emphasize community events, with an eye to expanding toward remote broadcasts of events of interest.

"The programming would be to get more localism back," Hunter said. "If (the station) could find people to volunteer for local sports games, we could broadcast it; that's something that nobody else has the ability to address."

New Hampshire interests have submitted a total of 23 applications for 16 FM channels, and there is some competition for some frequencies.

The FCC has geared its regulations to try to keep the low-power stations from being exploited for profit.

Applicants must be nonprofit organizations, must meet the FCC guidelines to be considered locally controlled, cannot apply for multiple LPFM stations and cannot have an interest in a commercial broadcast station.

Once on the air, no programs can be aired simultaneously by stations within 25 kilometers (about 15.5 miles) of each other. Since that is beyond the expected reach of the low-powered stations, networks of stations with similar offerings are not technically feasible.

But the lack of commercial viability is precisely what excites many of the applicants. Without the need or ability to attract significant advertising money, they can aim their product at a niche audience.

"The choice of stations in Hanover is just hideous, just kind of raucous, loud rock," said Robert Huggins, whose group, Moose Mountain Media, wants a license for Etna. "Whatever we do, I think it will be tasteful and good listening."

Some applicants already provide a sort of radio service through Internet connections or as the audio portion of the local cable company's community calendar channel.

Alberts, of the Littleton applicant, said his group provides programming over the Internet and through an AM transmitter too weak to require a federal license.

"It gets us about a mile," he said.

Alpert expects low-power radio will give local musicians an outlet and the community a new way to air issues of public interest.

"We give people an opportunity to express themselves creatively on air," he said. "We have a variety."

The existing Littleton operation includes a weekly visit from a home-schooled girl, about 8 years old, who comes in to read a book chapter aloud over the air.

Low-power FM stations are already operating in New Hampshire, licensed during an application period a decade ago. There are currently stations authorized to broadcast from Concord, Portsmouth, Londonderry, Dover, Rindge and Bartlett.

Frank Pingree, a longtime professional broadcast engineer and announcer, runs a low-power FM station, WJSK-LP, from his Bartlett home.

Pingree retired to his home state after finishing his professional career with a 22-year stint as the voice of ESPN, introducing programs and voicing announcements for its sports networks.

His station plays jazz standards and big-band music, genres that fellow retirees enjoy but can't easily find on the radio.

"We have a rather distinctive format because of the type of music available on the radio dial up here," said Pingree, 75. "We went with traditional jazz, which is a lot of the music of the '40s, '50s and early '60s."

But low-power radio won't necessary be an oasis from the kinds of modern music that make even the rock 'n' roll generation cringe. Providing an educational opportunity for young people and their emerging musical tastes is part of the mix.

The Lisbon Boys and Girls Club stated in its application that it would use the station as a tool aimed at "educating youth as well as adults through music and creative activities."

The low-power stations, with about 100 watts of power, are intended to have a signal range of about 3.5 miles, although an assortment of factors could make it heard beyond that distance. Major commercial stations often have power of 20,000 to 50,000 watts.

The FCC expects LPFM applications without a competitor seeking the same frequency to be approved within a few months. Competing applicants will take longer and will be graded on a point system that gives credit for community roots and involvement.

In the meantime, would-be broadcasters are waiting for the opportunity.

"We've had interns from local schools seem interested, refugees from commercial broadcasting," Alperts said. "We're 100 percent volunteer; anyone involved isn't expecting anything, it's just a labor of love."

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