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Low-Power to the People

WPEB broadcasts again from West Philly

 

By Meir Rinde

November 21, 2007

 

Are you a chatty or musical West Philadelphian? Is the bland homogeneity of corporate radio getting you down? Do you have an unfulfilled hankering to broadcast your thoughts on the important issues of the day?

Don’t despair. WPEB 88.1 FM is coming to the rescue.

The 29-year-old station, having hit hard times in recent years, is on the verge of a comeback. With new owners and a mandate to create noncommercial, progressive and—most important—community-based programming, it’s looking for listeners, members, organizers and show applicants who hail from West Philly.

“This is an amazing opportunity,” says Nijmie Dzurinko, who heads WPEB’s efforts to reach prospective members. “It’s on the FM dial, which is a pretty big deal. Most of the other community outlets on the radio are on the AM dial. That’s great, but there’s nothing on the FM dial that’s centered around the community in a kind of noncommercial way.”

 

The relaunched station is the brainchild of three organizations: the Media Mobilizing Project, an affiliate of the Philadelphia IMC (Independent Media Center); Scribe Video Center, which owns the license for WPEB; and Prometheus Radio Project, a group of former West Philly pirate radio broadcasters who’ve helped build low-power FM stations around the world.

Since they obtained grant money and donations to buy the 10-watt station last year, the groups have been hosting town hall-style events to inform locals about the relaunch, offering classes on radio, and holding monthly organizing meetings to hash out the governance, funding, programming, technical requirements and other details of the new venture.

A meeting at Scribe’s Chestnut Street office earlier this month drew about 20 people, including some who said they were looking forward to hitting the airwaves.

“Absolutely! I’ve got something to say,” said Deborah Roebuck, a health administrator who attended with her husband and sister. “I’m interested in healthcare and people thinking more about wellness. The mortality rate in this community is so high. I want people to know what to do.”

Louis Massiah, Scribe’s executive director, said he hopes programming will include documentaries, news, talk shows and music. Jonathan David, an independent scholar who’s helping organize the station, said activist groups like the Taxi Workers’ Alliance of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Student Union may apply for shows, and he expects other programs will play recordings by local artists not heard elsewhere.

 

David, an activist on the left since the ’60s, says he sees the station as a venue for the diverse residents of West Philadelphia, rather than the narrow demographic that often dominates progressive media.

“I wanted the left I’d been a part of to be firmly rooted in West Philadelphia, and not in punk coffeeshops,” he says. “I’m hoping the station can become a citywide station. That will be just a tremendous asset for the progressive movement, to have more media outlets that aren’t corporate and will reach into every household.” In the future WPEB will look into technology to extend its signal beyond West Philadelphia, he says.

The process by which DJs and show hosts are selected is still being worked out, but the station has tentatively selected a storefront on 52nd Street where it will build a studio, and it just hired a part-time coordinator as its first paid employee. At the meeting organizers said they’re also looking for a new location for their antenna.

 

Organizers say they jumped on the opportunity to acquire WPEB because it was a rare available spot on Philadelphia’s crowded radio spectrum. The station first started broadcasting from Calvary United Methodist Church in 1978, making it one of the last licenses issued under the FCC’s old, more generous policy on creating new low-power stations.

Under the longtime leadership of Sister Atikah Bey, West Philadelphia Educational Broadcasting transmitted more than 50 programs a week to 1.5 million households in Philadelphia, Delaware County and New Jersey, according to a 1996 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Programs discussed AIDS, drugs, sports and legal issues, and played rock, jazz and gospel.

In its later years the station ran into financial difficulties and turned to selling air time. From 2002 to 2003 the IMC broadcast its Radio Volta webstream on WPEB, and Bey later sold air time to Methuselah Z.O. Bradley IV, a West Philly attorney and minister. Bradley soon took over the transmitter, made the station all gospel, and reported to the FCC that he owned the station, according to Bey’s lawyers.

Bradley gave up his claims under legal pressure, but then the station suffered a recurring technical problem: Its signal at 88.1 FM was blamed for causing interference with the audio channel for TV station WPVI Channel 6. In 2005 WPEB notified the FCC it was going off the air, and early last year Bey sold the station to Scribe.

 

If Prometheus Radio Project had its way, community groups that want to get on the radio wouldn’t have to wait for an existing station to fold and go on the market. The organization has spent years pushing the FCC to allow more low-power FM stations, and has helped hundreds of community groups around the country apply for licenses.

But that hasn’t helped aspiring broadcasters in Philadelphia and other big cities, where lobbyists for NPR and commercial radio stations argue that low-power stations cause signal interference.

Prometheus says the interference claims are bogus, and last month a U.S. Senate committee agreed, sending a bill to the full Senate that would allow the creation of more low-power stations, including many in urban areas. But for now, buying a station like WPEB remains the only way for many community groups to get on the FM dial.

“Certainly in urban areas, there’s a real dearth of ways for people to have their voices heard,” says Todd Wolfson of the Media Mobilizing Project. “This opportunity, through low-power radio, was a vital opportunity to get community voices out and heard.”

 

Meir Rinde last wrote about the sale of Philadelphia’s stock exchange. Comments on this story can be sent to letters@philadelphiaweekly.com.

 

 

The article is also HERE in the Philadelphia Weekly archive.