After Years of Static, Low-Power FM Radio Inching Its Way Back to Long Beach

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Ken Roth (center) describes the process that has KLBP close to bringing back low-power FM radio to Long Beach. Photo by Jason Ruiz.

A potluck earlier this month at a home discreetly tucked inside the city’s Hellman neighborhood served as a melting pot of sorts for hors d'oeuvres as well as ideas. The house’s quaint backyard lit by cafe lights corralled an eclectic group of minds that are helping to plant the seed of a budding secret.

For five years, Ken Roth and the rest of the Long Beach Community Television and Media Corporation (LBCTMC) have fought to bring the voice of the people in Long Beach back to FM radio. The group was integral in the return of local access cable television to the city in the form of PadNet and then turned its sights toward the radio dial. Late last year, the group received word from the Federal Communications Commission that it had been granted a construction permit for its low-power FM station and the clock on the 18-month time window began to tick.

“We have 18 months to erect a tower or show progress toward that end and if we do so we will be granted a full license to broadcast in Long Beach and our signal will cover Long Beach, San Pedro parts of Wilmington and even reach up into Palos Verdes,” Roth said in an interview earlier this year.  

These monthly meetings serve multiple purposes for the group. The functions are used to familiarize the parties with the growing pool of interested programmers that hope to contribute to the 24-hour schedule, and to bring new voices into the fold. The members sat in a circle as Roth explained the arduous process of getting to this point, before unveiling a set of options the group needed to discuss, representative of the progress made by the group. On this day, with the call sign in place—KLBP—and grant applications in the works, the group held a vote on the face of the station: the logo.

For the newcomers, there was the initial introduction to the group. They gave their names, their background in the industry and what they hoped to bring to the KLBP. The broad spectrum of potential programming is about as homogenous as a Coachella lineup. Discussions about video gaming talk shows, music shows catered to those fond of acts with female bass players and those like Nicolas Zart, pushing for segments on sustainable transportation have about as much in common as Rancid and Calvin Harris. But it’s all Long Beach-centric and being produced by Long Beach residents.

Zart, who was once known as “the Electric Car Guy” because of his work in reviewing electric cars, has worked as a journalist for years and said the group represents an organic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really showcase what the City of Long Beach is about, with radio serving as a platform.

“It's about diversity,” Zart said. “It's about seemingly diverse people converging on a central theme, with a common passion around the same desire to communicate it and picking up the ball, running with it. Everyone is bringing in a specific skill set, a specific angle in the community and taking on bits and pieces of the project without being told or asked.”

KLBP logo on whiteSugar Blaire Robinson, a former professional boxer who met Roth when his lamb chop-loving, three-legged dog “Tripod” was doing his business in her flower bed. They were neighbors and they spoke often about the housing issues he suffered through before eventually coming to an agreement to move out of his first district apartment last year. The Watts native couldn’t resist the opportunity to share her voice through radio because she said she sees in Long Beach a lot of what was present in Los Angeles that led to her moving to Long Beach in the first place.

“We all want the same thing, whether it’s music, whether it’s art, whether it’s politics, whatever your forté is, young kids need to hear about it and we are the teachers of young kids,” Robinson said. “I just want to give back in any way that I can give back.” 

The importance of radio varied from member to member; for each, it represents a conduit of sorts for the issues they’re involved in. Whether it’s video games, mobility and transportation, politics or getting airtime for local musicians that can’t quite break into the Los Angeles market that’s dominated by corporate radio stations, KLBP stands to serve as an access point for Long Beach residents that, up until now, only existed on Internet radio.

One man pointed out that during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which extended into Long Beach, many people in the southern part of the city were unaware of what was happening just a few miles to the north. The connectivity to the past and present of Long Beach was a universal theme, as the introductions revolved around the circle.

For Larry Smith, a professor in the film and electronic arts and American Indians studies programs at Cal State Long Beach at Puvungna, radio waves can also help inform and engage audiences in forgotten, and more often than not, neglected histories. Smith is a descendent of the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina and cohosts American Indian Airwaves on KPFK in Los Angeles.

He said that most Americans would get an “F” for American Indian history, but even that would be generous because an “F” makes it sound like “you signed up to take the class.”

Smith said that it’s important for a city like Long Beach, which has a university built on top of Tongva-Gabrielino land, to understand the reciprocity of native issues and how it affects the lives of residents in the city.

Having conversations broadcast in Long Beach like the ones he has on KPFK that demystify the California mission system and denounce the archetype of native americans, but more importantly, talk about the living history of indigenous peoples because, as he pointed out, “they’re still living” is important to creating a paradigm shift to how the community thinks about indigenous peoples.

“I think as a society comprised of mostly the descendants of immigrants, except for indigenous peoples, if we’re going to be honest and there’s going to be any cultural, social and environmental healing, it has to start with the original people of whose land you live upon,” Smith said. “My hope is that with indigenous people having a voice on community radio, is that it helps generate and create that kind of dialogue.”

For Roth, the housing issues that a portion of the station will focus on is just as much a personal issue as it was a mandate from the FCC that community stations like KLPB cover issues endemic in the city and the nation as a whole. He recently was forced to move from his home after over a year of unmitigated code enforcement issues that ended in a settlement with his property management company. He hopes to illuminate those issues, as well as shed light on what rights tenants have and the avenues available to them to avoid subpar living conditions.

“We’re trying to use this in a way where we link education resources to radio and popular music as well,” Roth said. “I think there’s ways to take advantage of what we have here and really inform folks in Long Beach that don’t necessarily have their fingers in all those pies to know what the city’s about. But here’s an opportunity to stick your finger in one pie that might have a little bit of everything that’s important to your community.”

However, the question as to who’s baking that pie and where the bakery is located is a point of contention for some. During the last round of LPFM submissions to the FCC in 2013—widely regarded as the last public grab at FM radio space—thousands of groups filed to get a piece of the rock. With less than a thousand LBFM stations on the air, this created fierce competition for the remaining slots, which in some cases resulted in a logjam of legal filings that required the work of mediators.

“Unless technology changes dramatically and they come up with some other type of frequency this is the end of the available FM frequency across the nation,” Roth said. “So this is it, they’re not going to be making any more offers.”

In the late 90s, a combination of telecommunications legislative efforts that tilted the scales in favor of conglomerate radio broadcasters as well as an FCC crackdown on small, pirate operations stacked the deck against low power broadcasters and further skewed their share of the FM market. Further fueling this problem was the public-auction style sale of radio space by these conglomerates that priced out small producers with price tags reaching the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

However, in 2000, after a grassroots-led effort demanding that a voice be given back to the people, the FCC reversed course and created the low power FM program providing an avenue for small broadcasters to get back on the air, legally. That motion was stunted by congress after lobbying efforts on behalf of corporate broadcasters as they sought to restrict new licensing opportunities.

It took 10 years, but after a fight led by LPFM advocates, low power FM radio finally scored a victory with the Local Community Radio Act being signed into law in 2011. The FCC formally started its application process in 2013 but the number of available frequencies and the number of people hoping to land them have never been in balance with supply always being outpaced by demand.

The urgency to land one of these spots, if it were indeed the last hurrah of LPFM grants, led to groups like LBCTMC forming daisy-chain alliances with other groups throughout the state in hopes of landing one of the coveted frequencies. The groups were awarded points for various FCC stipulations that they met, with the group with the most points being awarded the stations. Jewel Faamaligi represents one of those groups, Catalyst Inc., that was also pushing to secure 101.5 FM along with LBCTMC for a station in Long Beach.

Faamaligi said that after the point system process played out, the last two groups standing were Catlyst and Roth’s LBCTMC, but says that Roth’s claims of being the source of low-power FM radio in Long Beach is inaccurate.

She said that because the KLBP antenna will exist outside the city’s bounds—San Pedro and Carson are tentative locations—and that the Catalyst terrestrial signal will broadcast from inside the city, that the Catalyst signal is the one true Long Beach LPFM station. However, she said in any media setting, more voices is never a bad thing.

“They’re going to do what they’re going to do,” Faamaligi said. “We expect that there’s going to be competition; that’s radio. There’s always competition on the dial. At the end of the day, it’s really not about us versus them, it’s about creating local community space against the majority of stations because Clear Channel owns about 95 percent of radio power in this country.”

Clay Leander, a mediator familiar with the process verified much of this, stating that the gridlock that the groups had been stuck in was freed up when delay filings were dropped. Part of what helped this was KLPB’s jump to 99.1 FM, allowing for both groups to secure FM access in Long Beach but on different parts of the dial.

“Due to the process underway, all of the petitions to deny and objections have been dropped, and the groups are working more collaboratively, which has temporarily won the indulgence of the FCC to continue on this path, as they have expressed a preference that groups work more collaboratively where possible, which in turn will increase media diversity and better serve the public interest,” Leander wrote in an email. According to Leander, Catalyst has not yet been granted a license by the FCC.

A photo of KLBP members and potential contributors taken as part of a grant application. Photo courtesy of KLBP. 

Some members of the KLPB group argued against the idea, stating that it’s not where the antenna is located but the content that comes out of it that matters most, adding that it will be up to the community to decide which station is truly the “Long Beach” station. Roth adds that KLPB is licensed in Long Beach by the FCC, regardless of where the antenna is located—though it's looking more likely that the tower will be located at the Port of Long Beach.

Production on some of the content is already underway and will operate on a web-based streaming platform until the terrestrial antenna is squared away. Once it is, it will broadcast a weekly minimum of 10 hours of programming from Long Beach along with syndicated programming from its broadcasting partners.

Roth is hopeful that the plethora of stories about the city that are just waiting to be told will be able to be partnered with an equally deep resource that is the student populations at Long Beach City College (LBCC), CSULB and other institutions in the station’s reach that lack an FM outlet for students interested in radio careers.

The FM station, something that the city has had a modest history with (KKJZ, KFRN and the now defunct KNAC), is also a tool that Roth hopes can help fill the media-void that he says exists in the city. He noted that this generation is more aurally driven but Long Beach lacks the television and radio outlets that other large markets have a glut of. He hopes to change that with the home-cooked content KLBP will be serving up.

“The more organizations we have checking in on stuff helps people understand why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Roth said. “Information, as cliché as it is, is power, and it doesn’t have to overwhelm people but it does give them an opportunity to shape their own lives a bit.”

For now, the construction of the station from a content point will have a longer leash as the station builds a base. That’s not to say that there won't be quality control, but Roth said the community dynamic means that the voice will be of those who live here, not imported radio pros.

“We don’t have a bevy of radio veterans that are going to come in here and start this,” Roth said. “This is a community endeavor and we’re going to learn as we go. But I think that as long as we make sure that any journalism we do we practice ethically and ensure that the work is solid, then I think we can be a benefit.”

Low-power FM signals can reach about three to six miles from the antenna site as it only has a fraction of the wattage of larger commercial outlets. Once the antenna is erected it will operate with about 100 watts of power compared to the 110,000 watts that KPFK has at its disposal. If the station is able to gain a foothold in the market and average about 15,000 listeners it could make it eligible to petition the FCC for greater broadcasting power.

More watts means more exposure, and more exposure means that the city’s stories could be heard over a wider swath of Southern California whether it be via smartphone, webpage, or of course, the radio dial.



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