WRTE Pumps Up the Volume

For advocates of community radio, the federal budget legislation President Clinton is expected to approve before he leaves office is a Trojan horse. It contains a provision that, to the relief of the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio, will transfer authority over standards for new radio stations of 100 watts or less from the Federal Communications Commission to Congress. When put into effect, the bill, known as the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, will all but erase the bold steps taken in recent years by FCC chairman William Kennard, whose plan to license up to 1,000 new low-power stations to schools, churches, and community organizations was unveiled a little under a year ago.

But in Chicago, at least, low-power radio has won a small victory. Next month, WRTE (90.5 FM), the 8-watt bilingual radio station owned by the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, will boost its signal to 73 watts, which will bring its programming to listeners as far south as 79th Street, as far west as Oak Park, as far north as Fullerton, and as far east as Canal Street.

Kennard, who supported the wattage increase, considered WRTE “the perfect example of what he was trying to do,” says Yolanda Rodriguez, the station’s general manager. It’s easy to see why he admired the station, which the museum purchased from the Chicago Boys & Girls Club in 1996 for $12,000. Operated almost exclusively by students between the ages of 15 and 21, with eclectic music and news programming, the station reflects the interests of its community, the largely Latino population of Little Village.

And it’s not just an after-school clubhouse. “At the end of the two years the students know how to create a radio program from the ground up,” says Rodriguez. Each year WRTE takes between 40 and 60 new students, who are immersed for three intense months in the rules and techniques of broadcasting. They learn from local artists and professionals, like sound artist Jeff Kowalkowski, poet Brenda Cardenas, and NPR reporter Yolanda Perdomo. They train in the studio, and then request time slots, which they fill with programs of their own creation. Their final requirement is to maintain a show with professional standards for one year. Since only a few classes have graduated from the program so far, it’s too soon to judge its job-placement record, but several alums have already landed work at the Spanish-language paper Exito and at Channel 66.

Rodriguez says that in June 1999 Kennard asked WRTE to apply for a new license under one of the new low-power radio classifications he planned to introduce, so the station could serve as a poster child for the initiative. But the station declined–it had its own interests to protect. In October 1998 WRTE had put in a request to increase power to 100 watts and was still waiting for an answer from the FCC. Pinning their hopes on a classification that didn’t even exist yet, Rodriguez and her staff correctly speculated, would have been too risky. The original request was turned down in December 1999, and WRTE applied for permission to broadcast at 85 watts; when it became clear that wasn’t going to fly either, they lowered the number once more. But even at just 73 watts, WRTE will now be the most powerful station in the class D category–a classification for college and educational stations that the FCC froze in 1978.

One of the most vocalized concerns of low-power radio’s opponents is the congestion of the airwaves, which presented one of the biggest obstacles to WRTE’s power boost. Each of the station’s requests required extensive research on potential interference with other FM stations, as well as numerous trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with Kennard and other FCC commissioners, and legal costs approached $60,000. In order to grant WRTE’s request the FCC waived both the 10-watt power limitation for class D stations and a rule prohibiting interference with an adjacent station, in this case the Moody Bible Institute’s WMBI (90.1 FM). An engineer familiar with WRTE who spoke on the condition of anonymity thinks the FCC made these exceptions because they’d already made them once before: in 1993 the station, then still in the hands of the Boys & Girls Club, had been granted an increase to 16 watts, but never installed the equipment to take advantage of it. That won’t happen this time: WRTE, which has an annual operating budget in excess of $300,000 and funding from the MacArthur Foundation and other local underwriters, has already purchased the new transmitter.

Of course, those less interested in politics than good music just need to know that the station devotes significant airplay to some of the most exciting pop and rock bands working today: Cafe Tacuba, Aterciopelados, Julieta Venegas, Bloque, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Gustavo Cerati, Titan, and others like them sing in Spanish, so Chicago’s ultraconservative rock stations won’t touch them. Nor will the city’s array of Spanish-language broadcasters, whose programming generally favors Mexican regional styles like norteno and ranchera. WRTE program director Monica Posada says the station also plays music from Brazil, France, and Italy, along with dance music, hip-hop, and alternative rock.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.