Since the Federal Communications Commission approved of low power FM licenses three years ago, only two low power stations have been established in Acadiana.
June 4, 2003
Mike Levier and Gervis Williams are sitting at a table across from one another in a lavender room of the Southern Development Foundation offices in Opelousas. There is a control board between them, two computers and three microphones. A pair of Kenwood speakers hangs from the wall.
They’re only halfway through their weekday show, The Gervis and Mike Show, a four-hour program filled with rap, R&B, swing out and community announcements. At the end of a song, Levier reminds listeners that they’re listening to KOCZ 103.7 FM, “No. 1 for Opelousas.” He wishes Miss Danielle Lewis of LeBlanc a happy 18th birthday and reminds his listeners that a public meeting for the Atchafalaya Basin Steering Committee will meet later that evening at City Hall. He also announces that Miss May Dupre is retiring as an elementary school teacher this year, and he thanks her for her years of service to the community.
Williams reminds listeners that KOCZ is “putting Opelousas first” and that if they want to give a “shout out,” they’re only a phone call away. “This is your community radio station,” he says.
KOCZ began broadcasting on Nov. 17, 2002. John Freeman, chief operations officer of the Southern Development Foundation, says the station has come a long way from its inception six months ago. Operated by the foundation, Freeman says KOCZ helps foster the organization’s mission of community enhancement through outreach programs. In the beginning, there was only himself, Office Manager Mona Kennerson and two volunteers. Today, KOCZ boasts 13 volunteers, out of nearly 30 applicants who applied to volunteer for the station.
The 100-watt radio station broadcasts 24 hours a day. Shows throughout the week showcase local music, R&B, hip-hop, blues, Zydeco, swing out, gospel and jazz. There is also a weekly Sunday evening show in which Freeman says the station spotlights “the movers and shakers of the St. Landry area.” Each day, eight and a half hours of programming are broadcast live by local volunteer disc jockeys, and the rest of the day’s broadcast is handled by a computer.
Twenty-one-year-old Garrett Lavergne is the station’s program director. He also has his own hip-hop program on Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 p.m. until midnight, Slow Down and Bangin’. He works temporary jobs during the week and then volunteers another 30 hours a week at KOCZ. He says the station has intentions of broadcasting more live programs, but the foundation is looking for the right volunteers. He says it’s been difficult to find individuals “who are serious about radio” to do live shows. The foundation staff interviews volunteers, and if they’re approved, they receive hands-on radio training at the station.
He says, “This type of station, a community station, really trains you. I’ve got a lot of real hands-on experience with the computer programs, and with management, that I wouldn’t have with any other place.”
Asked why he spends so much time doing a job for free, Lavergne says it’s important to “bring a media outlet to the community that gives them a stronger voice. It gives them a way to get things out, so they don’t have to go out of town to other stations. We have a station right here where our voice can be heard.”
Levier agrees. When he first learned that the Federal Communications Commission would be issuing licenses for low power radio stations, he approached Freeman with the idea of the Southern Development Foundation running its own radio station.
“It’s a good project,” Levier says. “The intentions were to help out the community and give a voice to the people in this community.”
The cost of making that voice possible, while not cheap, is certainly cheaper than the cost of starting larger radio stations. Freeman says the foundation spent about $26,000 setting up the digital, 100-watt station. An anonymous donor contributed $15,000 to the project, and local businesses helped foot the rest of the bill. Underwriters like Williams Insurance Company, Williams Funeral Home, daycare centers and consulting companies help cover the day-to-day cost of running the station.
Freeman says that on a good, clear day, you can hear KOCZ seven miles away from its tower, effectively covering the entire city of Opelousas.
In January 2000, the FCC approved the class of Low Power FM (LPFM) radio service. LPFM stations were created to broadcast noncommercial, educational broadcasts by nonprofit organizations, like community organizations, schools, churches and local governments. Individuals and broadcasters were excluded from applying for LPFM licenses. The low power stations are limited to a maximum broadcasting power of 100 watts, which can effectively cover a three-and-a-half-mile radius and may reach up to seven miles out. LPFMs are an unprotected class of service, which doesn’t protect them from interference from larger broadcast signals.
Established broadcasters raised concerns about the LPFMs, primarily that they would encroach on the airwaves that they already occupied. The National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio joined forces and lobbied Congress to oppose the FCC’s initial proposal. Congress eventually agreed and ended the issuing of any new LPFM licenses.
According to the FCC’s Web site, there is no anticipated date for reopening the window for new applicants to apply. However, if a new window is opened, the FCC will post the information to its Web site 30 days prior to doing so. During the first and only window of opportunity for applying for a LPFM license, more than 3,000 organizations applied.
There are three organizations in Lake Charles applying for licenses: Five Point Radio Inc., Throne of Grace Fellowship and the Lake Charles Christian Education Committee. There is also an application pending for Tri-City Community Broadcasting in Morgan City and another pending in Breaux Bridge for the St. Martin Parish Voters League.
Pete Tridish is the technical director for the Prometheus Radio Project. Based in Philadelphia, the organization formed in 1998 as an advocate for creating low power radio stations and assisting organizations in building their new stations. To date, they have assisted three organizations with creating their low power stations, including KOCZ.
Tridish says that former FCC Chairman William Kennard favored the implementation of LPFMs, but that under current Chairman Michael Powell it’s unlikely that the issue will be revisited soon. Tridish says he sees LPFMs as more than just tiny radio stations throughout the country. He says they are “an exercise in democracy.”
Tridish says that KOCZ is a fine example of the ideology behind low power radio stations, a small station that is community-based and community-oriented. And the real beneficiary is not the Southern Development Foundation, but the city of Opelousas. It gives the community a voice without having a filter. Tridish says that commercial radio is dictated by popularity and listener trends, which has a tendency to muscle out the interests of the community it serves.
“It shouldn’t be just corporations that have a monopoly over the public airwaves,” he says. “There should be opportunities for all sorts of citizens to speak and to participate. It’s as much about building a community as it is about building a radio station. It’s a way that people connect with each other.”
KZJM 92.7 FM, the only low power radio station in Lafayette, broadcasts hip-hop and R&B 24 hours a day. The station is run by a nonprofit organization, M&M Community Development Inc., and began broadcasting in October 2001. Through its Web site, www.jamcentral.com, the station offers its programming over the Internet.
The idea behind “Jam Central” is the work of Tony Gray, president and CEO of Gray Communications, a broadcast consulting firm based in Chicago. The company consults urban format radio stations across the country. Gray says M&M is a branch of a larger nonprofit organization that was created in Columbus, Ohio. But the M&M in Lafayette has the same mission as the original group, which Gray says is to be “a community outreach group that looks to assist in the training and development of young people – college and high school students – to prepare them for careers in the broadcasting industry.”
Gray has created 23 branches of M&M throughout the nation in hopes of securing LPFMs for each organization. Gray says, “If we’re lucky, we may be able to operate five.” Currently, there are only two LPFMs operated by M&M – KZJM in Lafayette and KCJM in Alexandria. Gray says that KCJM was the first low power station in the nation to go on air in May 2001.
Gray says he could have set KZJM up with only $25,000, but that he invested more. He says, “We wanted the station to be competitive in the marketplace. We didn’t want listeners to think they were listening to a lesser station than commercial stations.” LPFMs are not allowed to run commercials to cover the expense of broadcasting, so they seek out underwriters just as a larger public radio station does. Gray says that in this sour economy, it has been difficult to secure underwriting from local businesses and that most of KZJM’s sponsors are record labels.
Gray says the station is not a profit center, but a training ground for people who are interested in broadcast careers. Currently, KZJM employs only one full-time employee and two part-time employees. With no volunteer deejays manning the control board, all of KZJM’s programming is generated by a computer in its Lafayette office. Gray says M&M intends on applying for federal grant money in order to expand and to create the training ground he envisions.
Back in Opelousas, inside Leo’s Creative Cuts & Styles on South Railroad Avenue, Keith Bigase says he hasn’t even heard of KOCZ. He has a tattoo on his right arm and gold front teeth.
“Is that the one that plays Zydeco?” he asks.
Tamika Batiste, from Lawtell, has heard of the station. She says, “It’s pretty cool. I listen every now and then.” She says her little brother, Brandon Miller, is a DJ at the station and has a Zydeco show on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“He’s talking?” Bigase asks.
“Yeah,” Miller says.
Bigase says he doesn’t listen to a lot of radio these days and that in the shop, the television is always on. He says, “A lot of people don’t listen to the radio because of CDs and burned CDs.”
Miller disagrees with him, maybe sticking up for her little brother at the same time. But, Bigase still makes a point. In a time when the music you want, the exact song you want, when you want it, is right at your fingertips, how much radio are people listening to these days? And, for those who are tuning in, are the low power radio stations the Davids of the airwaves, attacking the Goliaths with their 100-watt towers? In a market already saturated with so many voices, can communities be heard over the clamor of advertisers?
Freeman says he doesn’t see KOCZ as competing with other radio stations for listeners. He’s just pleased to be adding another voice to his community.
He says, “We pride ourselves on being part of this democratic project.”