Tom Vesci is the operations manager for WACC, a 100-watt FM radio station run by Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield. He's trying to explain to a reporter what makes low-power FM — a category of radio that may soon see a renaissance thanks to a change of rules by the Federal Communications Commission — so special, and different from larger commercial stations.
Vesci is trying to explain, that is, until he's interrupted by Neil Diamond. There are muffled voices on the other end of the phone.
“Sorry about that,” Vesci says, explaining that one of his student DJs had just started playing “Sweet Caroline” in the middle of a rock set, so Vesci had to warn him about keeping things consistent. “His grandma requested it,” Vesci explains.
And that, right there, is pretty much what makes low-power FM different.
It's the local flavor that allows a request from grandma to mess up a station's whole format, and allows the Enfield Fire Department to broadcast PSAs reminding residents to please not call 911 if their sink is clogged. It's the ability for students to get practice — and make a few mistakes — while broadcasting live to their friends and, yes, their grandmas.
LPFM, as it's called, isn't new. For the past decade, noncommercial groups have been allowed to broadcast, albeit quietly, on frequencies not occupied by commercial stations. The broadcasts are limited to 100 watts — by contrast, commercial stations can sometimes operate in the range of 50,000 watts — and the reach of a typical low-watt station is usually only a few miles.
College radio stations are well-known purveyors of noncommercial content, and there are about a dozen of those operating in Connecticut, but typically at strengths of a few thousand watts — considerably more than an LPFM designated station. There are even unlicensed stations, most common on private school campuses, that may reach only a few hundred yards, and they are legally allowed to operate without any FCC oversight. There are currently only six licensed LPFM stations in the state, but that may change under new FCC guidelines.
WACC exists mostly as a teaching tool, but the benefits it offers extend beyond the Asnuntuck campus into the local community. Aside from getting the word out from local agencies like the fire department, Vesci says WACC has the luxury of being able to highlight local bands that otherwise wouldn't make it on the air, and local politicians who don't normally get much exposure.
While a typical LPFM signal can only travel about three miles on normal terrain, a happy accident of geography gives Vesci's station a reach of up to five miles. The school is nestled in a valley along the Connecticut River, and while the hills on either side shield them from larger commercial stations, the river's unbroken expanse allows the signal to travel freely without buildings and topography slowing down the vibes.
The changes made to FCC regulations will open up new frequencies to potential use by LPFM, by narrowing the required buffer zones between established broadcasters and LPFM startups. To avoid interference, the FCC used to require three “clicks” of the radio dial between stations. That's now been narrowed to two, leaving more room for the little guys.
Because urban airwaves are usually more densely packed with commercial stations, there tends to be more room for LPFM in rural areas, and all of Connecticut's existing stations are outside of major population centers. Churches have long embraced LPFM as a way to expand their ministries, and of the LPFM stations operating in Connecticut, all but Asnuntuck's have a religious theme. Advocates hope the smaller buffer zone may lead to more urban stations too, but that remains to be seen.
Prometheus Radio is the organization largely responsible for getting the FCC to relax its LPFM rules, and they've been working at it for almost a decade. The group positions LPFM as an alternative to the increasing concentration of media companies in the hands of relatively few large broadcasting corporations.
The fight for more LPFM has created some strange bedfellows, with evangelical Christian organizations standing alongside liberal corporate warriors. Perhaps surprisingly, National Public Radio joined larger corporate broadcasters in opposing the FCC rules change, arguing that more LPFM could create interference with their own broadcasts.
Stephanie Shaw, director of communications with Prometheus, said she expected to see a new wave of LPFM applications when the FCC starts accepting them, sometime this spring. She said the group wasn't aware of any LPFM “hopefuls” in Connecticut yet.
“But maybe this article will inspire some,” she says.
Changes in FCC Regulations May Open Up the Radio Dial to More Low-Watt Stations