When Lee Anderson opened Radio Bean Coffeehouse four years ago, he envisioned the tiny cafe in downtown Burlington would double as a 1950s-style storefront radio studio -- hence the name. And for those four years, Anderson waited patiently for the Federal Communications Commission to work out the political kinks and approve his application for a low-power FM license. LPFMs are noncommercial, community radio stations that broadcast a signal of 100 watts or less over a radius of about five miles.
Last month, Anderson's dream moved another step closer to becoming a reality. On October 18, the FCC finally granted him a permit to begin construction of the station, which will broadcast from a rooftop antenna a few blocks from Radio Bean. Anderson is one of about a half-dozen applicants in Vermont whose LPFM applications were finally approved. On October 11, an LPFM station in Warren, 95.1 WMRW-LP, began broadcasting in the Mad River Valley.
The Burlington LPFM station -- 105.9 FM, currently a vacant slot on the FM dial -- will feature a colorful mix of community-oriented programming, ranging from live-music performances to political debates to talk shows by local refugees speaking in their native languages. The format will be determined largely by the folks who show up and get involved. "Pretty much, we are going to focus on local news and music," Anderson says. "I really want to have a good representation of the Burlington community."
Anderson's partner on the project is Jim Lockridge of Burlington's Big Heavy World, a nonprofit, youth-oriented record label and media project. The 8-year-old BHW promotes and preserves Vermont-made music. Its mostly volunteer staff of high school and college students maintains the Vermont Music Library, an archive of more than 1000 titles and local music reviews, as well as VermontMusicShop.com, an all-Vermont online music store. Lockridge says the partnership with Anderson represents a great opportunity not just for Radio Bean and Big Heavy World but the entire community.
"The radio station is going to be a great platform for kids to get involved in the technology and the industry of broadcasting," says Lockridge. "And it's going to be a platform for promoting music originating in the state and providing exposure for Vermont-based artists."
Though LPFM is just hitting the airwaves in Vermont, community radio has been bitterly fought for years. In January 2000, the FCC created the new class of radio licenses as a way to increase diversity on the airwaves and combat the growing consolidation of the broadcast industry. However, in the last few years some of the most powerful forces in broadcasting, including Clear Channel Communications, the National Association of Broadcasters and even National Public Radio, lobbied the FCC and Congress to curtail the number of LPFM licenses that could be issued. They argued that the signals from LPFM stations -- which are operated by schools, religious groups, and other community organizations -- would interfere with their own large signals.
When the science beyond the industry's claims was later debunked, the FCC began issuing more LPFM licenses. Anderson now says he'll spend the winter doing some fundraising for a radio station "barn raiser" in the spring with the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group that assists communities in setting up LPFM stations. The station is expected to be up and running by June.