Prometheus and Houston's KPFT fight to prove that Low Power FM is just the tool for a community in need
Prometheus Radio, the low-power FM advocacy organization named for the Greek Titan who gave fire to man in defiance of Olympian bureaucracy, has found a human face that could broaden support for and understanding of of indy media and micro radio. LPFM service was introduced five years ago, and while the FCC has issued more than 600 licenses to non-governmental and community organizations, it remains largely under the radar and on the fringes.
But the FCC, Zeus' present-day stand-in, understands its potential for humankind. On September 10, the FCC approved a frequency for the Houston Astrodome's media parking lot, where Prometheus and Houston's Pacifica Radio station, KPFT, plan to operate a radio station until all evacuees in the dome are relocated. The 6-watt KAMP 95.3, for Katrina Aftermath Media Project, can broadcast news and public-information programming in a 1-2-mile radius, with an emphasis on helping evacuees find missing family members.
|A temporary Low Power FM radio station, KAMP 95.3, is broadcasting news and public information to the dwindling number of Katrina evacuees still living in the Houston Astrodome. (Photo by Indymedia.org)|
The temporary station is operating out of a rented Airstream trailer using equipment donated by the Houston Indy Media project and KPFT. An all-volunteer staff mans the facility around the clock, and dome residents can pick up the frequency on radios that Prometheus volunteers distributed last week. Community-media activists from around the state have been involved in the project, including Austin KO.OP radio founder Jim Ellinger and former KO.OP engineer Jerry Chamkis. KPFT News Director Renée Feltz said that volunteers in Houston and Dallas are recording public-service announcements with evacuees in their cities that can be broadcast through and exchanged with KAMP.
Feltz says that KAMP can provide crucial information to evacuees, including how to navigate bureaucratic hurdles, rumor control, and a sense of connection with their uprooted former lives. "Almost everyone you ask says they want to hear about what's going on back home," said Feltz in interviews at KPFT's offices September 10 and by phone September 12. KAMP also will offer some musical programming "if people want us to," Feltz added.
Strangely enough, fears about music programming may be one reason that Houston officials blocked Prometheus' first requests to operate inside the dome despite the FCC's quick action and the reported support of Governor Rick Perry's office. Feltz said JIC Public Information Officer Rita Obey told her that the JIC, which turned down Prometheus twice, was concerned about "incendiary gangster rap," but Obey said in a telephone interview that she does not remember that conversation.
JIC Incident Commander R.W. Royal Jr, who authorized the denials, could not be reached for comment. Feltz said neither Royal nor any other JIC staff met with Prometheus to discuss their plans in detail. "I think the communication was so poor that they never understood what programming we sought to provide," said Feltz.
While KAMP's primary goal is to provide public-service information to the evacuees, radio is a powerful venue for survivors to tell their stories. KPFT has aired firsthand accounts since evacuees first began arriving in Texas, some of which starkly contrast with official reports. Feltz recalled an interview she recorded with a group of children who had been without food or clean water for seven days after the hurricane hit. "That was a really different story than what we were hearing from Mayor Nagin, who said, We have all the resources we need, people are getting rescued, it's just a matter of agreeing to leave," said Feltz. She added that KPFT has received significant listener response to their coverage. "I can say that every time I get on the radio to do an update, the survivors call, especially if we're talking about New Orleans."
But even as KPFT's Katrina audience is growing, the population that can participate in and benefit from KAMP is dwindling. The delay caused by the JIC's denial drained some of the enthusiasm of the media volunteers and donors who jumped on board the project as soon as it was announced, and every day there are fewer evacuees left in the dome. On September 7, the day Royal denied Prometheus' request, volunteer Jacob Appelbaum posted his frustration on the Houston Indy Media website. "I told `the evacuees` that I was with a group helping to bring emergency radio information to them. Broadcast from right inside the dome. Those people were overjoyed to hear that they would get a radio station ... It breaks my heart."
"Just like everyone else in the city, people were asking, What can I do" said Feltz. "Here we had an opportunity to reach out with people that wanted to do something with media." Prometheus had a tentative agreement with Sony to distribute 10,000 walkman radios, but when the JIC rejected the original applications, volunteers distributed between 700 and 1,000 inexpensive receivers instead. Some frustrated volunteers wanted to set up a pirate station, but Prometheus has a working relationship with the FCC that has brought significant gains for LPFM. "We felt like we had this relatively positive working relationship with the FCC and we didn't want to step on anyone's toes for the next time around," said Feltz.
By Monday, September 12, when KAMP was setting up in preparation for going live Tuesday morning, the dome's population had shrunk to 1,400 residents from a high of 17,500 on September 4, the day the FCC approved Prometheus' original application. Feltz said that the station will likely operate for about a week because Houston officials plan to relocate all evacuees from the Reliant Park complex, which includes the Astrodome, by September 18. KAMP may go off the air at that point, but Feltz said the activists have discussed transferring the license to one of the area groups that is working closely with the relocated evacuees, such as Shape Community Center or the Shrine of the Black Madonna. Any such transfer would have to be approved by the FCC.
In the meantime, KAMP will be broadcasting at 95.3 to any listeners in the Astrodome area and uploading missing-persons PSAs to the Houston Indy Media website (houston.indymedia.org) or a linked site. "This is an opportunity to see micro radio as a tool relevant to people's lives," said Feltz. "This isn't a radio station that's being set up to prove a point, or for people that already have access to the internet. It's something that could provide an essential service." •
By Elaine Wolff