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Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age

A Blog from New America's Media Policy Initiative

Room on the Dial: Group Wants Community Radio in Scranton

Published:  August 21, 2010
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Logo for WFTE 90.3 FM: People's Radio for the Scranton Area

Scranton, Pa. — The FCC has granted Scranton a grassroots opportunity.

Armed with a temporary radio construction permit and guided by the Prometheus Radio Project, local non-profit organization Community Radio Collective, Inc. plans to launch full-power FM station WFTE 90.3 and they have five months to do it.

Community Radio Collective has begun a capital campaign to raise $15,000 to be on the air by midnight Feb. 10, 2011, when its construction permit expires. The money will pay for a 60-foot tower to be built 10 miles away in Mount Cobb, creating an FM signal strong enough to reach the city and its suburbs clearly—that is, an area of about 200,000 people.

MPI is studying Scranton’s news and information landscape and has published findings in a case study. The study is based on the recommendations outlined in the Knight Commission’s “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age” report.

Pointing to Knight Commission ideals, a community radio station could empower citizen participation in self-governance, ensure a local community information hub and expand individuals’ information capacity.  

Studying Scranton, we found that while area residents have standard media choices, there is little diversity in media ownership and journalist layoffs have precipitated insufficient community coverage.

Those findings were confirmed Wednesday night by the 25 people who turned out for a discussion, “Scranton’s media problems and potential solutions,” hosted by WFTE founder Alex Allen and Community Radio Collective Chairman Jake Rosen. When asked what they want in local radio, the 25 participants said that they are looking for an antidote to the “sameness” of corporate radio music lists and a counterpoint to conservative talk shows.

Among their expectations: airspace for citizen journalism, ethnic communities, local progressive talk, regional bands and artists and radio theater. Many specifically asked to hear Democracy Now, a popular syndicated program hosted by Amy Goodman. Organizers said that show has pledged a free broadcast feed for one year to the station upon launch. 

If WFTE 90.3 is successful, the volunteer- and donation-supported radio station will be a media outlet responsive to listeners and aimed at countering a corporate media environment that, the founders believe, is often disconnected from its audience.

As described by WFTE, the mission is to bring a “sorely needed” progressive movement to Northeast Pennsylvania.

“WFTE shall aim to create and provide high quality, innovative and community-oriented programming serving communities, information, and ideas that are ignored, suppressed, overlooked, or underserved by the mainstream media,” according to WFTE press materials.

About 30 radio stations across the region can be picked up on the dial in Scranton, and nine of those stations are based in or near the city. Times-Shamrock Communications, publisher of the Scranton Times-Tribune, owns three commercial radio stations that are broadcast to the region, operated by the company’s Shamrock Communications division.

Should WFTE raise the money it needs to go on air, it will join WVIA 89.9 FM, the region’s National Public Radio affiliate, the University of Scranton’s WUSR 99.5 FM, plus a number of Christian-themed stations on the noncommercial spectrum.

Beyond the station tower, a second campaign will seek to raise an additional $40,000 for operations and studio space in Scranton.

In October 2007, the Federal Communications Commission opened a one-week window for nonprofits to apply for noncommercial educational (NCE) radio station permits. WFTE was granted the radio construction permit through that offer. 

An exact count of community radio stations in the country is difficult to obtain since “community radio” is a loose categorization that can include low and high power FM, noncommercial, and public radio, but the industry trade group National Federation of Community Broadcasters counts more than 200 members.

Prometheus Radio is also assisting the start-up Williamsport Community Radio WXPI 88.5 FM in Williamsport, Pa., in the north-central part of the state. According to its website, Prometheus has “supported hundreds of community organizations to apply for licenses and build their stations, touring the country to reach out to community groups and spread the word about LPFM. Prometheus organized 11 ‘radio barnraisings,’ where hundreds of volunteers gather to build a radio station in three days. These radio barnraisings have helped groups build their base while training a new generation of media organizers across the country.”

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