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So many voices, so little time:
Possible Solutions to the Dilemma

By John Riley, co-producer of WBAI’s “Out FM Program”

WBAI is located in the most unique city in the world with the most diverse cultural mix possible. New York has 52 radio stations that saturate the radio dial; no free space is available in the regular AM/FM spectrum. Meanwhile, we have many communities clamoring for media outlets. Public Access TV provides an outlet to the 50% of the population that has cable, but nothing has the potential reach of broadcast radio and TV. WBAI has for years had the impossible task of trying to meet the needs of diverse racial, national and other community groups because of limits on broadcast time. Now we have the possibility of expanding the number of broadcast hours by adding additional channels.

The Justice and Unity Campaign believes the station needs to creatively expand the bandwidth (or channels) of the station over the next five years. This could give various communities more access to the airwaves and larger audiences. It could potentially allow us to serve various nationalities which speak Spanish and Creole but which we can’t serve as easily because of limits of time and space on the schedule. New technologies like “HD(High Definition) Radio” (which allows for up to three channels of digital programming while maintaining the existing analog signal) and not-so-new technologies like analog-sideband radio and Internet radio may be able to expand our existing program bandwidth, but most require new receivers. The newer technologies are more expensive, but older ones, including analog-sideband radio, are affordable.

Even if economically disadvantaged communities may initially have less access to HDradios, as the technology is adopted and prices drop, other communitiesthat have more disposable income might find some of their programs on the new HDRadio channels, allowing poorer communities to be able to find their programs on the existing analog signal. The flexibility that HDradio and analog-sideband radio offers could make more space available on the main analog channel for these underserved communities.

We propose a  five-year plan implemented in three phases because it will take time to raise the money:

Phase 1: Begin broadcasting a second channel on one of our two existing analog-sidebands and simulcast it on the Internet.  Broadcasting using these two modes increases the possibility that people will start listening to the station. While about two dozen sideband channels are available in the NY/NJ area, most are non-English channels, the most famous of which is Radio Soleil (a Haitian station in Brooklyn). Many people listening to these stations had their existing AM/FM radios modified to receive the single sideband station they are interested in (fixed band receiver). Thus WBAI would need to encourage people to purchase the sideband radios that pick up our new signal – the station could offer relatively inexpensive radio receivers as premiums or for sale.. Competing sideband stations have popularized tunable sideband radios.* So some of the potential audiences already own radios could tune in right away when they know of the channel.

Phase 2: A few years from now, when money has been raised to purchase an HD-FM transmitter, we could broadcast not only our current signal on HD1, but also the sideband/Internet channel could be put in stereo on HD2.

Phase 3: Later, when we have a new building and more studio space to expand local production, a third HD channel could be added and more live programming would be possible.

What would this new channel cost?

Initially for Phase 1, this project would cost in the range of $45-55,000. This estimate includes some small equipment like: two computers, equipment like a minidisk player/recorder, CD player and DAT tape deck. We already have an existing Internet console we could use. Additionally, it would take some time each week to program the channel, which would require a paid engineer to download the shows, arrange the playlists and be on call to fix any problems. This would be a 20-30hr/wk position.  We would also need to add a separate high-speed line for the Internet so we have enough bandwidth for Internet streaming.

Having such a channel would provide WBAI space to pilot new programs. Programs that now air once a month on our current signal could be broadcast more frequently on the sideband, allowing new programmers to develop their skills. Popular programs like Democracy Now, Free Speech Radio News, and a variety of locally produced programs could be rebroadcast at different times; Pacifica and other national programs that we don’t have room for on the current program grid could be broadcast, allowing our listeners more options and potentially adding new listeners. Many of the national programs that could be used on the channel are available on Audioport, Pacifica’s audio file-sharing website; thus these shows could be readily downloaded and playback could be largely automated.

 

*However, WBAI would need to sell (or use as premiums) the fixed-band radios because of legal restrictions on the sale of tunable sideband radios.