Missoula Community Radio Launches As Accessible Platform For Free Expression

Mar 1, 2017

"You got Big Crawdaddy here, it’s a little after 7:30. You are listening to KFGM Missoula ..."

That’s 62-year-old Michael Cuslidge, who says you can call him just plain "Crawdaddy." He's a local musician, and a music junkie. And once a week, he drives up from the Bitterroot to DJ his show, "From the Big Easy to the Big Sky."

"There’s funk, there's blues, there's jazz, there's traditional, there's gospel, there's R&B. You can't go wrong with New Orleans music, and there is none in Missoula," says Cuslidge.

Well, there wasn't, that is, until New Year's Day, when Missoula Community Radio flicked on its transmitter and started pumping its 100 watt signal out from the Union Hall building downtown to everyone listening. Everyone within a 3.5 mile radius.

KFGM is Missoula’s first community radio station. Back in 2013, the Federal Communications Commission opened up a one-time, 90 day window, when nonprofits and community groups could apply for a special class of non-commercial, low power radio station licenses.

The only other time this happened was in 2000, so Ann Szalda-Petree, a longtime radio host and producer, knew this might be the only chance to realize her dream of starting a community-based station in Missoula.

"That really interested me — the grassroots fighting against the American Broadcasters Association for the right to broadcast sounds through the air that should be free to everyone," said Szalda-Petree.

She quickly found out that someone else here had beaten her to a low power license, but hadn't moved forward with building a station. She spent 18 months tracking him down, finally connecting just a year before the construction permit was set to expire.

"I was like, this can't happen. That's such a valuable resource and I'm ready to work on it! So, you have to call me back." Szalda-Petree said.

In the span of just two years, she and a troupe of dedicated volunteers founded Missoula Community Radio as a non-profit, got an extension from the FCC, rented space at the Union, raised $19,000, mostly 10 bucks at a time, built the station from scratch, and are now on the air 24-7.

And KFGM has plans beyond just playing music. They're hoping to partner with local community groups, work with marginalized communities and youth, and broadcast city council meetings live.

Szalda-Petree says it's really about creating an accessible platform for free expression, "and how people use it is their choice, but for me, the important issue, the important thing to do is amplify those voices. Not speak for people, not interpret for people, but to amplify what people who actually have diverse opinions have to say. And that's what we get to do here."

According to Pew Research, there are currently about 1,500 low-power FM stations all across the country.

KFGM has received a lot of support from locals and radio colleagues, but it's not easy running a non-profit, community radio station.

Szalda-Petree, now the board president, says she's heard that a lot of Low-Power FM (LPFM) stations don't make it, and end up surrendering their licenses, which are non-transferable.

According to the trade magazine Radio World, funding is usually the biggest hurdle. So are lack of expertise and underestimating costs.

Missoula Community Radio has made it through the starting gate. They'll need to do some savvy fundraising if they're going to be able to pay staff a livable wage and keep growing. Which is why, while KFGM may be independently-run, it’s not flying solo.

KBMF, also low-power community radio, is just a few months away from celebrating its second anniversary on Miner's Union Day in June.

Clark Grant is the station manager there:

"People that have lived in Butte a long time have remarked to me frequently about how it's improved Butte, it's changed it a little bit. I'm not under the illusion that KBMF is going to clean up the Berkeley Pit or anything, but I do think it's had a positive impact on people's lives here," said Grant.

Both Grant and Szalda-Petree recognized early on that LPFMs face similar struggles, so they teamed up to form the non-profit Community Radio Network of Montana.

It includes OurEvolution in Hot Springs, and Montana Ethical Hackers in Helena, which will be on the air as soon as they can build a new mast for their antenna. They all emerged in the last few years thanks to that rare FCC licensing window.

The network is a way to exchange ideas, expertise and station equipment, build political capital, and crucially, pool underwriting and fundraising efforts.

While LPFMs can't reach very far, they can go very deep, Grant said:

"I think the work we're doing serves a real concrete purpose in this community, and we're going to continue to do it, no matter what."

Missoula Volunteer DJ Big Crawdaddy does it every Tuesday night:

"We’re the new kid on the block. We have something to prove. And involving the community. KBGA is part of the college — they're somewhat transient. Their students go on. As long as I live in Montana, I'm going to be doing this show," said Cuslidge.

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