Why Gtown Radio, the Little Internet Station with the Global Reach, Wants to Jump to Low-Power FM

Founder Jim Bear on the importance of getting more listeners in Germantown.

Jim Bear, the founder and station manager of Gtown Radio, “The Sound from Germantown,” was an early and enthusiastic adopter of Internet radio. In the nascent technology he saw a chance to experiment with music much as AM radio disc jockeys did in the early 1960s and FM stations did in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He also saw it as a way to keep the Germantown community informed and connected after its main news source, the Germantown Courier, folded in the wake of the Journal Register Company’s 2009 bankruptcy.

Online since 2008, the station has remained true to its founding vision: More than 20 original programs offer music mixes you won’t hear anywhere on the dial and talk shows that offer knowledgeable advice and interviews on topics ranging from law to money to cool geek stuff to the future of urban communities and beyond. And yes, there’s news, sports and commentary for and about Germantown and environs, along with a show that gives Northwest Philly residents a chance to share what’s on their minds.

But there’s a hitch: The station has found an audience, but not enough of it’s in Germantown.

“I thought the technology would make Internet radio as ubiquitous as regular radio,” Baer said in an interview in Gtown Radio’s studios on Maplewood Mall. It did provide Gtown Radio wide reach: The station’s roughly 18,000 monthly listeners tune in from all over the world. “It’s not uncommon for us to have regular listeners not only from the neighborhood but also from Germany, Switzerland, the UK, even Taiwan.

“But the reality is, the technology has not caught up with radio. And in a community like Germantown, where many people have no Internet access in the home, radio is the best way to serve the community.”

So while he isn’t abandoning the ‘Net, Bear is also going back to the future, much like the revived Germantown Courier: He plans to apply for a broadcast radio station license.

It’s a possiblity now because of a 2011 law that removed tight restrictions on where the Federal Communications Commission could issue license for low-power FM radio stations. These stations — radio stations that transmit signals with no more than 100 watts of power, enough to reach listeners within a 3.5- to 10-mile radius — were first authorized by the FCC in 2001, but large broadcasters lobbied Congress to pass a law that severely limited its ability to issue licenses on the grounds that they would interfere with the big broadcasters’ signals. The new law not only removes the restrictions but makes low-power FM licenses available in urban areas for the first time. That has triggered a surge of interest from community media organizations in cities across the country.

Gtown Radio is precisely the sort of organization the new law had in mind. The all-volunteer producers and hosts of Gtown Radio’s live shows offer them as labors of love and as a way to share music and talk about subjects mainstream radio doesn’t touch. Like the world of sci-fi, fantasy and comics from a black perspective: “Too cool to be geeks and too cute to be nerds, we are Black Tribbles,” reads the opening of the description of one of the station’s more distinctive talk shows. “Our programming is more subject-oriented than location-oriented, but [a local focus] is a natural because most of the people at the station are from Northwest Philadelphia,” Bear said.

The station’s music shows likewise don’t fit into the standard commercial radio boxes, mixing genres and periods with abandon, as does the station’s database of more than 7,000 tunes, from which it draws its automated music mixes when the original programming does not air.

It was this freedom that drew Bear into Internet radio shortly after graduating from Franklin and Marshall College. “There were two eras of radio where experimentation ruled,” he said. “One was AM radio of the 1960s. People would tune into their AM station and they’d hear country, they’d hear R&B, they’d hear rock ‘n’ roll. It wasn’t siloed off like it is now. Then AM became boring, and up sprang FM radio. It was free-form, people experimenting, playing what they were interested in, before it became regimented and profit-driven. That’s where Internet radio is now with FM as the dominant medium.”

Given these historical arcs, it’s quite likely that Internet radio too will follow AM and FM — and the rest of the Internet — down the more commercial path, though its low barriers to entry may prevent it from ever being fully corporatized. There’s no danger of that happening with low-power FM: the FCC allows only noncommercial broadcasting on the low-power channels.

Bear expects not only a surge in local listeners but also a surge of interest in programming for Gtown Radio as an over-the-air broadcaster. “With open airtime, there’s probably going to be a lot more interest in getting programs on the air,” he said. “The real estate value of open airtime would increase significantly.”

Maybe even so much as to allow a 24/7 schedule of original programming from real people. “Getting it staffed 24/7 would be great,” he said. “I think we’d see a surge of people requesting more types of programming. Even with just 100 watts reaching the Northwest, there would be enough demand” — and presumably, enough interested would-be hosts and producers out there to fill it.

On the air as online, Gtown Radio would continue to fill a niche no other station fills — that’s why the FCC authorized low-power FM stations to begin with. And it would continue to rely on “the support of listeners like you,” just like the bigger public radio stations do. As the station already has facilities, Bear doesn’t need to raise a huge wad of cash to apply for a license: The application itself is free, but he will need to pay for engineering studies to find a suitable frequency and for the transmitter and antenna — and possibly a place to house it if the roof of 24 Maplewood Mall isn’t suitable. (Anyone interested in chipping in is encouraged to donate online.)

The FCC expects to announce a new application window for the first round of low-power FM licenses since the law’s repeal in mid-October. Bear is already doing the spadework to submit an application when the window opens.