Not far from the glass-and-concrete pile where broadcasting behemoth Radio One has its headquarters in Silver Spring, William Tucker is readying a studio for a station called WOOK. Tucker plans to play neo-soul, funk, and R&B, appealing to listeners of Radio One’s WKYS and WMMJ—if Radio One doesn’t stop him.
With 54 stations in Washington and 16 other cities as far away as Dallas, Radio One has gone to great lengths to stop WOOK, whose signal won’t reach the White House.
In August, WOOK became the area’s first recipient of a Low Power FM (LPFM) license under an FCC program that promotes stations broadcasting at 100 watts or less—enough to be heard within a 3½-mile radius. Most LPFM applicants have been community groups targeting a neighborhood. Tucker’s station is a bigger project: an attempt to revive the spirit of WOOK 1340 AM, one of the first stations in the US geared to a black audience. Founded in the ’40s, WOOK hosted religious shows and personalities such as “Soul Papa” Campbell that Tucker listened to growing up in Takoma Park in the ’70s. “We’re creating a platform for local voices,” says Tucker, who also plans talk shows, spoken-word poetry, and Washington-area bands.
The FCC created low-power broadcasting licenses in 1948 but stopped issuing them in the ’70s to accommodate high-power stations. By the ’90s, hyper-local radio was almost entirely the domain of pirates. Amateur stations have long operated without licenses. But as media corporations homogenized radio, “more people were dissatisfied and went out and set up transmitters,” says Boston College radio historian Michael Keith. One group, the Mount Pleasant Broadcasting Club—aimed at Spanish speakers around DC’s Ward 1—staged protests in the ’90s, demanding that the government liberate the dial. “One of the ironies” of current LPFM policy, Keith says, is that these voices are now blocked from getting the new licenses.
But they laid the groundwork for the Local Community Radio Act, which President Obama signed in 2011; it made good on years of FCC promises that had been squelched by industry lobbying. “There was some concern about low-power FM interference issues,” says National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton. “Those have pretty much been resolved.”
Most interference claims were debunked in 2000 when the FCC circulated a CD of Suzanne Vega singing “Tom’s Diner” with a nearly inaudible background hiss: the sound of a 100-watt station’s “interference.”
“It just became embarrassing for NAB to oppose this stuff,” says Sanjay Jolly of the Prometheus Radio Project, a community-radio activist organization.
But Radio One is still trying to bar WOOK, claiming in an April 2014 petition that the station “will compete with Radio One’s stations for listeners.” An FCC official says competition isn’t grounds to deny an application. If the petition is denied, WOOK—already broadcasting online at wookradio.org—could be cleared to set up its transmitter by spring.
This article appears in the February 2015 issue of Washingtonian.