Bob Fulkerson, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), has long been an advocate of reviving the federal “fairness” doctrine, a policy that allows federal regulators to police the content of broadcasting and require broadcasters to provide time for certain points of view.
Now, Fulkerson may have found a more direct way to get a different viewpoint on the air. PLAN has been granted a radio station broadcasting license by the Federal Communications Commission.
The development could put a different point of view on the air in a field mostly dominated by conservative talk.
“We have three years to go on the air. … We’re going to talk to the folks at KVMR in Nevada City [Calif.] in January to see how they’ve been able to do successful community radio,” Fulkerson said. “I was thinking of calling it Radio Free Nevada but then realized the young folk wouldn’t get the metaphor.”
Radio Free Europe was a Cold War tool used by the United States to “educate” by beaming propaganda broadcasts into Eastern European nations. Though the “iron curtain” has long since come down, Radio Free Europe still exists under the name Radio Liberty and now focuses more on Arab and Asian nations.
PLAN is a coalition of 33 Nevada organizations. Though it is often characterized as liberal, it is so only in the Nevada sense, which would be more middle of the road in, say, Portland or San Francisco. Its advocacy of some liberal issues has been restricted because of its need to satisfy all its member groups. It has had to pass on some controlled growth issues, for instance, because it has two labor unions as members of the coalition.
Fulkerson said PLAN decided to try for the license because, “It’s one of the most creative and fun and effective ways to communicate progressive ideas to a wider audience. We’re essentially about trying to shape public opinion in this state. It’s a strategy that is available to us. [We decided that] if it became available to us we’d be fools to pass it up.”
He said his organization became aware of the opportunity through networking with other groups.
“There’s a group in California called Common Frequency that deeply believes in the value of community radio, and they contacted us and asked if we would be interested in applying.”
Communities of interest
Since PLAN sent out a December mailing that mentioned, almost in passing, that it had received the license, it has had numerous calls from people with long experience in Reno radio offering help or seeking to participate. “We have had really good conversations with local radio experts,” Fulkerson said.
The station will be a non-profit outlet funded by contributions and grants. That’s one of the things he wants to discuss with the Nevada City station’s staff. “They have kind of blazed a trail for progressive non-corporate community radio,” he said.
Community radio is a form of radio broadcasting authorized by the federal government along the lines of a model that does not match either commercial broadcasting or public broadcasting. It generally addresses the interests of a specific geographic area or a “community of interest.” On this last point, Fulkerson pointed to a Medford, Ore., community radio station operated by farm workers.
Community radio stations can be low or high power. The PLAN station is full power FM. Fulkerson compared his group’s plans to the Medford station and a Boise operation and to low-power stations operated by Jeff Cotton and Bruce Van Dyke in Gerlach and Cedarville. Community radio is widespread and is not confined to the United States. In fact, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) produces a community radio handbook that says the concept was first developed in Bolivia and Columbia. In Bolivia, it was a means for miners to get their message out.
“We’ll have to put together a fundraising plan, and we’ve got to find an antenna that we can piggyback on,” Fulkerson said.
“I think in about a year’s time we will be up and running, and we want to make sure that the programming we have is high quality.”
He said he hopes for the station to connect with the community in a way that creates “the good feeling that the X put out. In addition to that we also want to have some different kinds of news—Democracy Now, Pacifica Radio, some of these other entities that will let us stream their news. We would probably also like to have some Spanish programming as well.”
PLAN was not the only contender for the Reno license. Iglesia Christiana el Verbo de Dios Inc. of Sun Valley also submitted an application. In November 2010, PLAN filed a petition seeking FCC denial of the Sun Valley application. With the alacrity for which federal agencies are known, the FCC granted that denial 11 and a half months later.
Liberal or progressive radio—liberals tend to avoid the L word—has an uncertain history in Reno.
On Feb. 28, 2005, the owner of KPLY at 1230 AM changed the call letters to KJFK and switched to a format of talk with “a left leaning slant” (“The new voice,” RN&R, March 3, 2005). It broadcast programs featuring Stephanie Miller, Al Franken, Ed Schultz and Randi Rhodes from the liberal Air America network. The station has had hit and miss luck with developing locally hosted programs, and Air America went out of business in January 2010, though its programs mostly continued on the station.
Advice from a competitor
The owner of KJFK, Tom Quinn, is a former cabinet member to California Gov. Jerry Brown. He also owns other stations. When he was told of the PLAN plan, he said, “I would welcome that. I think it would be good for everybody.”
He did not necessarily think the new station would drain away some of the audience of KJFK. Washoe County, he said, is not a particularly conservative area, though it is often portrayed that way.
“If you look at voting patterns, people argue that Washoe is conservative, but it went for Obama, it went for Harry Reid. There is strong evidence that a large minority of people are progressive.”
He said there’s another reason he does not particularly see the new station as a threat—multiple stations, he said, can help develop a needed audience, and having two liberal talk stations in Reno could do just that.
“Sometimes when there’s more of something the pie expands,” he said. “There are markets where, if you put in two or three country stations, that’s what people start listening to.”
He said expanding the local liberal audience is hampered because it is currently addressed on AM. “It’s helpful to have greater diversity than we have [with KJFK] and being on FM helps.”
The greater concern for PLAN, he said, will likely be fund raising. But even there he saw some potential. Non-profit stations can use techniques that do not work for commercial radio, he said.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s also a potential advantage,” Quinn said. “Really quality broadcasting has been created with a lot of public support. … There are examples where people are willing to pay five or 10 dollars a year for the kind of radio that they feel strongly about. It’s unlikely they would give in that kind of a fashion for a KJFK.
“KQED is one of the best radio stations in the United States,” he said, referring to the reader-supported San Francisco station.