To the left on your dial

To the left on your dial

A phone call from an attorney rarely evokes elation. But one such conversation earlier this year had David Brown practically walking on air.

Brown, chairman of the Baton Rouge Progressive Network, had just received word that the Federal Communications Commission had ruled in his group’s favor, ending a struggle over control of WHYR-LP [96.9 FM] that began in 2005.

As a result, BRPN now can move forward with its plans to create a volunteer-run radio station dedicated to local music and issues, a goal that had been put on hold because of the conflict.

The phone call, Brown says, came out of the blue.

“It’s amazing that everything worked out after so long,” he says. “We’ve really had to fight for it.”

The FCC ruling was a long time coming. BRPN originally applied for, and won, a construction permit for the station in 2004. Almost two years later, board members learned that another local nonprofit had hijacked the frequency by submitting false modifications to BRPN’s application that changed the name on the permit in the FCC’s database.

BRPN petitioned for further modifications of the FCC application, Brown says, but the federal agency remained silent on the issue, and BRPN was close to giving up on the project.

When President Barack Obama’s administration took office in 2008, Brown and California-based attorney Michael Couzens made one last effort to petition the FCC. Neither Couzens nor Brown heard back from the agency until late January 2010, when the FCC gave control of the frequency to BRPN and fined the squatting nonprofit $20,000. The ruling also gave BRPN until June 26, 2011, to begin broadcasting.

Now BRPN is abuzz with plans for the new station, which will be known by the organization’s name. The mission statement is simple: to be a voice for Baton Rouge’s progressive community, something that BRPN fund-raising committee co-chair and programming committee member Heather Sewell Day believes has been lacking in the city-parish.

“It’s going to be a voice for the little people in the community, somewhere you can be heard,” Day says. “So many people and organizations get lost in the shuffle, and this would be a great outlet for them.”

WHYR will feature a 60%-40% ratio of music and talk radio. Music will spotlight local artists and groups, pop and rock tunes beloved of the Baby Boomer generation and a segment devoted to making music and live studio performances. Planned topics for programming range from public safety, education and environmental issues to local politics, civic participation and faith.

No hosts for local talk show programming have been settled on yet, Day says, but there has been significant interest from the community in contributing. WHYR also has entered into an affiliate agreement with Pacifica Radio to broadcast the daily news program “Democracy Now!”

One of the challenges facing BRPN, Brown says, is the changing connotation of the word “progressive,” which has undergone a shift since the nonprofit was founded in 1999.

When BRPN first applied for its permit, potential development in south Baton Rouge was a hot issue. BRPN founders hoped to engage those property owners and unite the different parts of the progressive community through a new radio station that would keep them informed on the issue. Now Brown’s vision is a station with content driven by BRPN’s members: individuals and organizations that facilitate communication and education about progressive ideals.

“Most of that definition should be determined by our board and our membership,” Brown says. “My personal definition of ‘progressive’ is organizations generally left-of-center on the political spectrum that want to help free Baton Rouge of some of the obstacles and conventional wisdom that have limited our advancement.”

Radio stations featuring more liberal talk-show formats have traditionally fared worse in Baton Rouge’s demographic than conservative-leaning programs. The most recent entry into the market was WPYR-AM, an Air America affiliate that made the transition to gospel music in 2007 after barely registering in the ratings for two years.

But that outcome doesn’t mean Baton Rouge is an exclusive domain of conservative thought, says Jim Engster, president of the Louisiana Radio Network. Focusing on a specific niche, he says, might be the new station’s best strategy.

“There is a capacity for that kind of programming in Baton Rouge,” he says. “The question is, How do they wish to do it? Are they going to provide information or take standpoints and advocate on issues?”

But don’t think this station is going to be like other liberal stations that have met their demise because Baton Rouge’s listenership is admittedly conservative, Brown says. WHYR will have a progressive bias, he says, but its main focus will be on the community, allowing different opinions to be heard.

One difference from WHYR stations that are affiliated with Air America is that the local station will own itself, and its operating costs will be lower because the station is smaller. BRPN will be free from some financial pressures, allowing the organization to focus on building its programming.

The board has taken no action on choosing a site for the station, but Brown expects that decision to come soon. The 100-watt signal is expected to reach more than 200,000 listeners. After the site is confirmed, the next step is to raise a minimum of $75,000 in funding for equipment and salary for a full-time station manager.

BRPN is starting to reach out to potential large donors, Day says, with plans to host fundraisers before the June broadcasting deadline. Once the station is up and running, BRPN will consider hiring two part-time employees to raise funds and manage programming. Ideally, she says, about 50% of the station’s revenue would come from foundations and grants, while the rest would be made up of donations.

Engster says the key to WHYR’s success will lie with the station’s budget. A 100-watt station is more likely to attract hundreds, not thousands, of listeners, limiting its donor base.

“While 100 watts should cover a good part of the city, it’s obviously not an ideal situation,” Engster says. “They will generate some attention, but what it all comes down to is if they can spend judiciously.”

Although the permit gives BRPN until June to become functional, Brown and Day hope the station will launch in April or May. So far, feedback has been good and BRPN members believe WHYR will fill a need in Baton Rouge.

“We appreciate there is a challenge there and an opportunity to do really great programming,” Brown says. “It may seem bizarre, but we’re trying to be all things to all people. This shouldn’t be thought of as left-of-center, radical radio. It’s not.”

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