Tom Eblen: New Lexington radio station will focus on community engagement

Herald-Leader columnistJune 21, 2014 

This is the working name and logo of a group that has secured an FCC construction permit for a low-power FM radio station that would serve a 3.5-mile radius covering central, north and west Lexington. The first of several public meetings is June 28.

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If Lexington were to have a small, community-oriented radio station, what should its programming be? What roles should it play? Whose voices should be heard?

Those are some of the questions being asked by a local group now organizing such a station. They will convene several public meetings to get answers, and the first one is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., June 28 at Sayre School's Buttery Building, 194 N. Limestone St.

The Federal Communications Commission recently awarded the group a construction permit for a 100-watt FM station. It must be on the air by October 2015 and would have a broadcast radius of 3.5 miles from its transmitter on the Bluegrass Community and Technical College campus at Leestown and New Circle roads.

The small coverage area would include downtown, Northside, the East End and as far west as Cardinal Valley. This diverse area of 93,000 people includes some of the largest concentrations of Latino and black residents in Lexington.

"We want to serve that community in a way that has never been done before," said Mick Jeffries, a photographer, graphic artist and radio host on WRFL-FM, the University of Kentucky's student-run station that he helped start 25 years ago.

"The low-power FM movement has to do with trying to restore radio as a kind of education and community resource," he said. "It's largely educational and has a laboratory component to it. It's nothing like commercial radio as we now know it."

After commercial radio was deregulated in 1996, a dozen or so corporations quickly bought up most of the nation's locally owned stations. They cut costs by replacing local staff and programming with syndicated content.

In reaction, the FCC in 2000 started granting licenses to non-profit organizations to operate low-power FM stations for community service. But, within months, radio-industry lobbyists pressured Congress to stop the FCC from issuing more licenses.

That changed in 2011 with the Local Community Radio Act, which allowed a new round of license applications last October. More than 1,200 have been granted. Lexington's successful application was spearheaded by Debra Hensley, an insurance agent and former Urban County Council member.

Community engagement is Hensley's passion. She has organized "social stimulus" events and produced videos and podcasts about neighborhoods and citizens. While they were working together on a podcast last year, Jeffries told Hensley about the low-power FM opportunity.

Hensley created a radio station organizing group that is seeking non-profit status. In addition to Jeffries, other board members include Hap Houlihan, formerly of The Morris Book Shop; Kakie Urch, another WRFL founder who now teaches new media in UK's School of Journalism and Telecommunications; and Tanya Torp, a neighborhood leader in the East End.

They have reached out to many others for assistance, including BCTC, the local Latino arts and culture organization FLACA, the Urban League, WUKY-FM and the city's Division of Emergency Management.

John Bobel, the division's information officer, said a low-power FM station could be a valuable tool for reaching people in many of these neighborhoods during emergencies, as well as for communicating public safety messages.

"I am president of the William Wells Brown Neighborhood Association, and the way we get our word out is that I have to knock on doors to tell people what's going on," Torp said. "So having this kind of resource in our community is vital. A lot of people do not have Internet access. But a lot of people, including the elderly, have radios."

The organizers see many potential roles for the station: covering neighborhood meetings; convening and broadcasting public forums; call-in shows discussing local issues, including wellness and nutrition; school music concerts and shows; and coverage of youth and league sports, including a Spanish-language show about Lexington's Latino soccer leagues.

"Part of my job at UK is expanding use of different media to tell stories in different ways," said Urch, who also sees educational opportunities for youth. She wants to create after-school workshops to teach middle and high school students to use technology and tell stories they care about.

Plans call for the station to have a free smartphone app that would allow broadcasts to be heard from anywhere, as well as a website with text, photos and video. Hensley wants a storefront studio in a visible location to increase public engagement.

"It's not like we're looking for syndicated programming that's going to appeal to a certain market," Jeffries said. "We want to engage people to actually help create the content for the station."

Hensley knows the biggest challenge will be raising money to make it happen. She estimates about $50,000 in startup costs and an annual operations budget of as much as $150,000.

She is working on a three-year business plan, which would include grants, donations and, primarily, sponsor messages from local businesses and organizations, such as public radio does.

"We envision this as something the community sees, feels, embraces," Hensley said. "So at this meeting we want to say, this is what we've got, this is what it could look like. What do you think?"

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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