Arundel group to launch low-power radio station

WRYR to offer forum for local interests, issues, planners say

November 26, 2001|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

While fighting to preserve their tranquil towns on the Chesapeake Bay, members of the South Arundel Coalition for Responsible Development have drawn criticism and kudos for using the media to advance their cause. Now the feisty environmental group has plans to control its own medium.

Early next year, the group, known as SACReD, hopes to launch a radio station - the first in the state to go on the air as part of a federal push to revive low-power community radio.

Project organizer and SACReD leader Michael Shay says the station will be much more than a megaphone for SACReD, which has prevailed in two key battles to stop development in southern Anne Arundel County. He envisions the airwaves crackling with the voices of the region, from watermen and politicians to gardeners, bluegrass musicians and birdwatchers.

"We're made of many different parts, and radio will provide us with an opportunity to appreciate those parts and share them, said Shay, a building contractor.

With a projected broadcast range of about 15 miles, Shay said WRYR - 97.5 on the FM dial - should reach the South County area and coastal communities across the Chesapeake Bay in Talbot County.

The station would be the first in Maryland to go on the air under new rules approved last year by the Federal Communications Commission. The stations must be noncommercial and no more powerful than 100 watts.

For decades, such stations were illegal, and the FCC shut down many of the operations. Supporters of low-power radio hope that the change will bring diversity to what they see as the homogeneous, format-driven programming of large commercial stations.

"The point is to explore our culture and to bring news and opinions and other things that aren't particularly successful at selling sneakers and toothpaste, but are nonetheless important to express," said Pete Tridish, who used that pseudonym while broadcasting for low-power stations. He is a founder of the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, an organization that helps groups establish low-power or "micro" radio stations.

Shay became intrigued with the idea of community radio three years ago, when he attended a workshop in Baltimore held by the Prometheus Radio Project. SACReD prepared its low-power license application with help from Prometheus, and in April received an FCC construction permit to build a station. The final license is to be granted once the station goes on the air.

SACReD is one of three Maryland applicants to win FCC approval for a low-power station. The others are St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Garrett County and Edinboro Early School in Ocean City.

Nationwide, the FCC has granted about 130 low-power construction permits, and is still processing the nearly 3,000 applications is has received. Of those, the agency estimates that half will be granted licenses.

Most of the new microstations will be in rural areas, said Michael Bracy, executive director of the Low Power Radio Coalition, an advocacy group based in Washington. He said that the powerful broadcasters lobby resisted the FCC's changes, saying small stations would cause signal interference with established stations in urban areas. Congress has ordered a study of the issue.

Community radio - which had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s before the FCC imposed restrictions - gained momentum during the past decade as pirate radio stations took to the airwaves to protest the trend toward corporate ownership of media outlets.

"You had stations in housing projects, stations in really rural villages, left-wing politics, right-wing politics, Spanish-language Christian stations," said Jesse Walker, author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.

Since SACReD received its station construction permit, Shay has been at work soliciting donations from local businesses to buy studio equipment - at a cost of about $22,000 - and rounding up local radio talent.

Businessman Tom Maginau donated studio space for the station at his small office building in Deale, and other area merchants have pledged financial help.

Supporters believe that many in South County will tune in for a mix of local news, music and talk.

"One of the main reasons that people live in South County is because they're a little bit individualistic and really want to retreat into a community that does have some unique characteristics and is not part of the urban areas where they work," Maginau said.

SACReD came to prominence three years ago when the group triumphed in its bid to prevent development on a 477-acre parcel known as Franklin Point. Over the past three years the group has focused most of its energies on blocking construction of a shopping center in Deale that would have been anchored by a Safeway grocery store.

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