Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Low Powered FM, Capitol Hill, and ME

A couple weeks ago I was invited down to Washington DC by my friends Michael and Chhaya from the Future of Music Coalition. I met these kind and passionate folks while I was down in New Orleans last winter for the Artists Activism retreat that I wrote to you guys about a few months ago.

Future of Music Coalition is a national non-profit education, research and advocacy organization that helps musicians get involved in the issues that impact their lives and careers — particularly issues having to do with access to media like radio and the internet. You can check them out here

So I went down to Capitol Hill with Michael to take some meetings with representatives of congress and the senate to talk about the importance of the creation of Low Powered FM radio stations across the country. This is a policy they've been trying to get passed through congress for a few years now as the airwaves have been largely monopolized by commercial radio stations (ie, buttrock and britney)

I feel really strongly about the creation of these stations as I feel they really promote the local color of the areas they're in and they support local and independant music. In most commercial stations there is no platform for local, independant or experimental music or specialty shows and with the music business being in such dire straights these days, its important for people to have access to these types of art. It especially helps out touring musicians to be able to promote and spread the word about their shows as they come through your town. When I first started out writing songs and playing shows, my local station 90.5 the Night began playing a couple of my songs on the air and it helped me to grow a fanbase and also gave me the confidence to really pursue a career in music. I want young artists to have these kinds of oppoutunities as well.

I was pretty nervous to go down there and speak (or lobby as they say) as I had never done anything like this before. Capitol Hill has some heavy doors. But I just followed Michael's lead and as we sat down to talk at the individual senate offices I actually felt pretty at ease to talk about the need for these stations. The fact that I live in Asbury Park, NJ and we are going through a major revitalisation made me understand the need for these stations not just as an artist but as a member of my community. If we had a 100 watt station in Asbury people would be able to easily know whats happening around town. All the changes that are being made, the new restaurants and galleries opening up, the happenings, the surf report, the local music revolution thats happening here. This place is finally coming together. Our own radio station would promote a really strong sense of localism and give our residents something to call our own and give everyone a voice.

The first day on the Hill was exhausting but wonderful. The next day I spoke on a panel with some wonderful folks that are really leading the fight to get this policy passed. These people are passionate about their local communities and the voice that these stations give to it. I never thought I'd be able to do anything like this and I'm really glad that FMC invited me to come down and talk. Its nice to know that as a musician I can open dialouges on important issues and not just get up on stage and sing. I can use my voice to help change things for the better and FMC can back me up and give me the advice I need to do it and help open some of those heavy doors.

What do you guys think about Low Powered FM radio?


DaveCromwell said...

Sounds like an idea that could help emerging artists. Still, you have to wonder if radio is going to be around much longer at all. The key would be, if people could pick up these low powered stations on their handheld devices (iphones, blackberrys', etc) - because *that* is where everyone gets (and gives) their information now.

Left Bank Scribe said...

Way to make your voice heard Nicole! This is the good kind of lobbying.

Re: LPFM: My first reaction is that yes, of course Low-Powered FM should be given a place on the dial by the FCC. However, I also have a few questions regarding sustainability.

There is a similar debate/movement in the newspaper world. Both radio and newspapers are facing the same dilemma radio faced at the end of the 40s and the beginning of the 50s=adapt or die. As people listened to radio serials (Howdy Doody, Lone Ranger) less and started watching television shows more, stations had to change. So out went the serials, and in came music, sports and news, which has been the model for about 60 years now.

With the advent of Internet radio, listeners are no longer beholden to shortsighted program directors in their own markets. If I don't like what's coming out of the transistors in NYC (e.g., buttrock and britney ;), I can go to in Seattle or in Boston and discover some wonderful new artist there because those stations don't exist to sell soap and won't play the same song five times in a single day. If the local stations want my attention, they need to, once again, adapt.

Of course, that raises the issue you brought up about localism, particularly vis-a-vis Asbury Park. We were spoiled by FM 106.3 and its commercials for the Fast Lane and the Green Parrot and didn't even realize it until it (AND the Fast Lane and Parrot) was gone. Clearly those Internet stations in Boston and Seattle aren't going to tell us what's going on at the Saint or the Pony. And neither is the Press, with any great detail or authority anyway.

Tying this back to newspapers, I've often daydreamt about someone starting an alternative newspaper for the AP-Belmar area. The front section would have no-holds barred investigative journalism (e.g. Why is Springwood Ave. still being held hostage by Phil Konvitz 4 years after his death?; Why is Fishman being allowed to disregard the agreements to rebuild the 5th Ave. bandshell?; etc.) and a second section would offer comprehensive listings and criticism of both dining and the arts (everything from high school plays and community theatre straight on up to gallery openings, indy films, and Dylan at the Paramount). I think it would offer some much needed sunshine on life at the Jersey Shore, but alas, it remains just a daydream.

So without a legitimate print option, yes, Asbury Park could use a unifying media outlet, and that could be a low-powered FM station. But whereas radio was the dominant media in that area, say, 15 or 20 years ago, I wonder if too many people have now turned to the 'Net to make FM even worthwhile. That is not to say a community station wouldn't work, but I am wondering if it would not be more practical for a community station to broadcast straight from the Net, saving the costs of both applying for an FCC license and constructing the necessary transmitter.

Since you live there, I'd ask you: Is there, in your opinion, a sizable enough population in and around AP that would support, financially and otherwise, a non-profit, low-powered FM station? I know there is a predominantly Creole station at 88.1 FM that, I believe (may be wrong though) is supported through church-based donations. Do you think if someone started a non-profit LPFM that focused on community news and arts, to, as you say, "let people know what's going on around town", that a large number of people would support it or volunteer there? Straight up question, because I really don't know. But if the answer is yes, then maybe that's just what the doctor ordered.

From a national perspective, there is a legitimate concern about interference and stations crossing signals (which is what the FCC is SUPPOSED to be focused on, instead of playing America's nanny. Grrrr...) But presuming those concerns can be addressed and worked out, I do think the policy should be changed and LPFM given a chance.

Again, though, have changing consumer habits made it too late to make a difference?

Nanoo alias Ania said...

Clap Clap Nicole. Very proud of you.

Radio is a great supplementary way to promote artist.
My little opinion of course : live performance is one of the best way to show what an artist is able to.

It's festival time soon so as always we will discover some great singers and musicians on stage.

In my case, i usually get seduced by the stage performance rather than radio performance.
But of course Radio is very usefull.

Go ahead !

Carlos G. Matta said...

Hey Nicole,
I grew up in Bethesda, MD, right outside of Washington, DC. We had a low powered FM station here, the legendary WHFS. But not for WHFS, DC area muscians like Tommy Keene, Minor Threat and Fugazi probably would have never received the recognition they deserve. I applaud your advocacy on this important issue. Good luck with the new album, and I look forward to seeing you play in Washington and Baltimore again.

Don Eilenberger said...

To Left Bank Scribe's thoughtful commentary - I'd suggest he take a look at: - there has been a local paper that does cover the smaller stories and local scandals - and has local entertainment news.

I love the idea of low-power FM - the problem being convincing the FCC to allocate some frequencies, and not just try to maximize licensing revenue. It's a good idea - and the LPFM station can and should similcast on the web so it can be picked up by the iPhone users and web-browser users.

What we don't need more "Jersey Guys".. (ever notice how the echo is turned WAY up for them - sounds like they're broadcasting from the sewer - and perhaps they are..)

Looking forward to your next gig on Ocean Ave - it's only a few weeks away right?

Jersey Jeff said...

Dude where's your website?

The Running Bob said...

Absolutely, there should be low power fm! Thought about a small powered, radio station when I lived in Colorado resort town. Due to the technology change from analog to digital, I thought analog equipment may become cheap. Second, a resort town's taste is much different from ubiquitous commercial programming.

Last, if you do another "Nicole Atkins Digs Other People's Music", I thought Little Steven's "Forever" would be great song by you -- or, how about using your Bruce connections for duet with Little Steven?

Left Bank Scribe said...

I'm familiar with the TCN, Don, but unless it has changed radically in the year or so since I last spied a hard copy (and apparently it hasn't), that's not what I was thinking of. I meant real, hard-nosed, shoe-leather, watchdog stuff - like this, this, or this.

Again, no one's doing that in print on the shore, so maybe LPFM is the answer.

The Pete Man said...

Glad you did that Nicole, it's a really important cause to those of us who don't want to just turn over the airwaves to the mega-conglomerates and their govt. cronies. Podcasting is great, but if we can't have some lcal low-powered FM action, we'll be losing part of our power and our cultural heritage. Thanx for speaking out!