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Common Frequency opens the air waves to new voices

Gavin Dahl is hard at work in the studio. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

By
April 20, 2011 |

You can help

What: Common Frequency benefit dinner, panel discussion and concert

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: UC Davis Technocultural Studies Building

Tickets: $5 to $35, on a sliding scale

Info: http://commonfrequency.org

Local broadcasting opportunities will be the beneficiary when Common Frequency hosts a free concert and panel discussion Saturday evening at UC Davis. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. at the UCD Technocultural Studies Building,  south of the Art Building and west of Wright Hall.

For a donation ranging from $5 to $35, guests will receive dinner and refreshments. At 9 p.m., Mucky the Ducky, Pregnant and Magikool Doods will perform.

Created five years ago by local radio engineer Todd Urick and dedicated volunteers, Common Frequency is part of a national coalition touting the last opportunity to apply for free local broadcast licenses. The Davis-based group is helping 20 West Coast radio stations pursue their own FM launches by 2012. For more information, visit http://commonfrequency.org.

“In 2007, the FCC offered radio stations to the public,” explains Gavin Dahl of Common Frequency. “About half of the noncommercial dial is held by religious affiliates, 30 percent are NPR affiliates with 20 percent left for local groups. Our goal was to reach these local groups across the country.

“Given the structure in place and the value of radio licenses, going after these public channels is the last bastion of democracy for the airwaves,” he adds.

Common Frequency is working with Native Public Media, Free Press, Pacifica Radio Network and Prometheus to save these channels. They help with applications, policy, technical work and “barn-raising” to help build the stations from the ground up.

In a white male-dominated industry, these local stations give a voice to multicultural and underrepresented local groups.

The other main concern of Common Frequency is the low-power FM window. Critics say the 1996 Telecommunications Act was disastrous for local media. Multimillion-dollar companies took over airwaves, killing off small stations.

“Clear Channel got too big with 1,300 frequencies nationwide,” Dahl says. “They no longer see value in paying smaller staff.”

The Federal Communications Commission created low-power FM stations for the remaining frequencies.

“In 1996, Congress passed a law that won’t allow these LPFM stations if they’re two clicks away on the dial, because it creates interference,” Dahl says. “There was no more space to put new channels.”

Through research, Congress later learned these 100-watt frequencies aren’t going to interfere with big stations. But even though the FCC wanted more channels, the law was in place.

“The last seven years has been an uphill battle getting it fixed,” Dahl explains.

In response, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., proposed the Local Communications Radio Act.

“A few key members of the Senate held back the bill,” Dahl says. “These small bills don’t get floor debates. When a bill comes up, a senator can have an anonymous objection.”

With activist pressure, the holds ended and the bill was approved. But now, a new quandary: In 2003, a window opened for “translator” applications. A translator extends a signal farther to reach a distant area.

If the translator applications passed, there’d be no space for LPFM stations. The FCC tried to solve this by establishing a cap of 10.

“The problem is, if translator applicants go first, they’ll likely pick urban markers,” Dahl says. “We mapped out all the available frequency in the top 50 markets; it would get rid of 90 percent of space. We’re hoping the FCC will take this research into account.”

Community radio is in trouble, Dahl says, pointing to the recent buyout and takeover of KUSF in San Francisco.

“Classical Public Radio Network had secret negotiations with the University of San Francisco,” Dahl alleges. “They came in and turned it off without telling students or staff. And it’s happening in other places, too.”

Telecommunications attorney Alan Korn and former KUSF music director Irwin Swirnoff will discuss saving KUSF at the panel discussion Saturday.

Davis enjoys the diverse programming of KDVS (90.3 FM), the student-run radio station at UC Davis, and KDRT (95.7 FM), the low-power FM station run by Davis Media Access, but other towns aren’t as lucky. Dahl hopes “people will get the bug to plug back into local media. If we can salvage the public interest in this, we can deliver news, music and local culture.

“KDRT creates 40 hours of original content every week,” he says. “You don’t need a 24-karat-gold soapbox to get up and speak. “We can’t forget the value of FM because we’re excited about our gadgets.”

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Landon Christensen

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