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Originally published Monday, June 21, 2010 at 4:53 PM

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Guest columnist

Red tape to get low-power FM radio licenses should end

Too many would-be operators of low-power FM radio licenses have been frustrated with red tape, write guest columnists Halimah Marcus and Jonathan Lawson. Now pending before the U.S. Senate. The Local Community Radio Act could ensure a wide range of voices are heard on radio.

Special to The Times

PEOPLE are sometimes surprised when Jeff Hoyt tells them his Vashon Island community organization has waited 10 years to start a radio station. Radio? What about podcasts, what about the Internet?

"We viewed starting an Internet station as strapping on a life preserver and treading water until we could get a low-power FM radio station," said Hoyt.

Hoyt's group, Voice of Vashon, runs a locally focused Web radio stream, as well as a tiny microtransmitter offering travel information to car passengers waiting at the island's ferry dock. The past decade has been something of a waiting game for Voice of Vashon. When the Federal Communications Commission first distributed low-power FM (LPFM) licenses in 2000, Hoyt was one of thousands who applied. However, like many others, the Vashon application was thrown out on a technicality.

LPFMs are community-run, noncommercial radio stations that broadcast at a modest 100 watts — far smaller than their neighbors on the FM dial. The licenses are free and the stations are small and inexpensive to build, making them accessible to just about anyone — if only there were more licenses to go around.

With nowhere left to turn, an Internet station was Hoyt's answer to being denied a license. Over 10 years, Voice of Vashon has built a faithful volunteer and listener base, and nurtured Vashon's vibrant artistic community. Programs like "This I Believe — Vashon" share the personal passions of island residents.

But station organizers have found that their webcast doesn't generate the kind of community participation or hyper-local coverage that could be inspired by having a low-power broadcast license. An LPFM transmitter would allow them to reach all of Vashon and Maury islands, home to some 11,000 people.

Now, 11 years later, they may finally get the chance to have a broadcast license and, according to Hoyt, represent "the true voice of Vashon."

Congress appears to be close to passing the Local Community Radio Act, a bipartisan bill that will greatly expand the number of low-power FM stations in the United States, and could give groups like Hoyt's the first chance to get a license in a decade. The bill sailed through the House last fall, with strong support from U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, and is now poised for a final vote in the Senate.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has championed this bill as lead co-sponsor in the Senate, along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

"Enacting the Local Community Radio Act will ensure a wide range of voices are heard on the radio in both large and small local communities," Cantwell said. "It is important for listeners to have access to all types of views and voices, and low-power FM increases radio diversity."

Many groups across Washington have been waiting for the opportunity to add to that diversity. Another Web station, Hollow Earth Radio, has been operating out of an attic in Wallingford for the past three and a half years (they're moving into a new space in the Central District this summer). Hollow Earth provides a venue for local underground musicians, with live coverage of all-ages shows and a growing catalog of music from the Northwest.

Amber Kai Morgan, Hollow Earth's founder and co-director, thinks a broadcast radio license is necessary for the station to reach full potential.

"Having an LPFM would solidify our foothold in the community, helping us reach more people," Morgan said. "We really support what's happening locally, which is what LPFM is all about. Now we're ready to expand."

For Hollow Earth, Voice of Vashon and other groups across Washington, Cantwell's support for LPFM has been encouraging amid a river of red-tape frustrations. However, community-radio makers and listeners alike agree: It's time for the waiting game to end.

Halimah Marcus, left, works with the Prometheus Radio Project (http://www.prometheusradio.org), a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that advocates for participatory radio. Jonathan Lawson is executive director of Reclaim the Media, a media justice advocacy organization based in Seattle.

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