On the air: Low-power radio stations give New Mexico communities a voice
Saturday, December 26th, 2015 at 12:02am
Radio is alive and well and thriving in a new form in New Mexico’s rural hinterlands and its biggest urban center.
Byron Powdrell’s home-based low-power station in the Northeast Heights is bringing what he calls black urban programming to an Albuquerque metro-area audience that doesn’t otherwise have that media option.
Will Floyd, technical director with the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, which has advocated for low-power radio since 1998, said this type of communication medium offers an important alternative to corporate-run stations.
“A lot of groups see a radio station as a tool to empower their own community to talk about issues that matter,” said Floyd. “It’s simple and cheap to build these low-power FM stations. It costs $10,000 to $20,000 to get on air. It can be a really powerful tool for groups that don’t have access to the same kind of communication we often take for granted in large cities.”
Prometheus has helped a handful of stations start in New Mexico, including one in Madrid.
Radio stations broadcasting at a power of 100 watts or less whose signal can reach only a few miles have been around legally or illegally since the late 1940s. The latest wave of stations to open stems from the 2011 Local Community Radio Act that resulted in the Federal Communications Commission giving nonprofits a chance to apply for licenses during a one-month period in the fall of 2013.
Folks in Central New Mexico who had been waiting for the opportunity to get a license pounced. Powdrell’s station 99.9 KMGG went live in mid-2014 as The Beat. The Placitas station KUPR 99.9 first broadcast in May this year and Madrid’s 96.9 KMRD followed in mid-June.
“It’s something that people around here have been wanting for a long time,” said Stella Linder Byrne, Madrid’s station manager.
KMRD broadcasts about 80 to 85 hours a week from the basement of the Studio 14 art gallery down the street from the landmark Mineshaft Tavern.
Local volunteers built the tiny studio, a local electronics expert put together the sound board from a kit and a blacksmith in the community built the 26-foot mast to hold the antenna that beams the signal from a hilltop outside town.
“The biggest project was to gather guys from the bar to drive the grounding rods into the ground to protect the mast from lightning,” Byrne said.
The station’s 59 DJs are all volunteers too. Many are musicians in their own right; Linder Byrne and several others work at the Mineshaft. Ongoing costs such as rent and utilities run about $600 per month.
Linder Byrne said they recently launched a campaign to help them raise funds to upgrade their equipment and enable them to stream their programs online. At present, the mountainous terrain limits their signal reach less than a mile south of Madrid and about 15 miles north.
Byrne’s vision, ultimately, is to have a recording studio, opportunities to do radio theater, facilities to train more DJs and “maybe pay people.”
Joan Fennicle, who described herself as “an old hippie community builder,” is the de facto station manager of the Placitas station. She is a board member of Las Placitas Association, the nonprofit that applied for the license.
“We’re supposed to do outreach to the greater community and this seemed like a great way to do that. A way to open doors,” Fennicle said.
They were able to rent a room from the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant center for the studio. The Land Grant and the Las Placitas Association chipped in some funding and a fundraising Valentine’s dance at the Anasazi Fields Winery yielded enough to buy equipment for the studio and transmission tower.
One of the biggest expenses, Fennicle said, was the nearly $3,000 they had to pay for the emergency alert broadcast equipment required by the FCC.
A call for DJs revealed an array of talent within the community. Among them, Bernalillo resident Alonzo Lucero, 79, volunteered his 36 years of experience as a DJ and program director with stations in Albuquerque and Belen to do a three-hour morning program in Spanish and English Monday through Friday.
Lucero plays a lively mix of New Mexico music and oldies interspersed with comment and interviews from local personalities like Bernalillo Mayor Jack Torres.
Former advertising and marketing firm owner Tom Traynor shares his love of blues, folk, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll for a couple of hours each week on the Eclectic 150 show.
Ongoing funding is an issue for the Placitas station, too. In addition to rent and utilities, fees for permission to play songwriters’ and artists’ material cost at least $1,000 annually.
The station reaches residents of Placitas, Bernalillo, Algodones and part of Rio Rancho.
Powdrell gained his radio experience with the local National Public Radio station KANW in the 1980s. He runs his station with two part-time helpers. They broadcast a mix of music including soul, rhythm and blues, jazz and gospel 24 hours a day, with live shows on the weekends and automated programming Monday through Friday.
Powdrell estimates the signal from a tower by his Northeast Heights home reaches up to 800,000 people in the metro area. He also pays for the capability to stream programming via the Internet. He’s heard feedback from a listener in England.
While the Placitas and Madrid stations cost around $10,000 to launch, Powdrell said his startup cost was around $75,000 because he invested in more sophisticated equipment. He estimates the monthly cost, including the streaming capability, is about $2,000.
Underwriting – basically thanking local companies that help sponsor shows – helps, but Powdrell says, “Basically, I work two jobs to keep this thing on the air.”