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Two UU congregations plan to start radio stations

Programming will be mostly secular but will include some UU content.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Voices of Oklahoma Radio logo

What would a Unitarian Universalist Prairie Home Companion or All Things Considered look like?

We may have a chance to find out. Two Unitarian Universalist congregations, in Norman, Okla., and Ames, Iowa, have acquired frequencies from the Federal Communications Commission for what are called “non-commercial, educational” (NCE) radio stations (think public radio) that will provide local programming.

Both filed applications for the frequencies in the fall of 2007. They received their construction permits this spring and will begin building within a year. They have three years to build a tower and studio, train personnel in news and program production, and get the station on the air.

The Ames station needs to raise $200,000 to get started, while the Norman station will need $150,000.

The two fellowships are believed to be the only UU congregations to acquire educational radio licenses for full-power stations. Norman’s will be 2,400 watts and Ames’s is 2,700. Both will be 24-hour stations supported by pledge drives and grants.

Mary Francis, a member of the Norman UU Fellowship and the founder of Voices of Oklahoma Community Radio, the group formed to create the station, said most of the other NCE frequencies that have been given out by the FCC have gone to large religious groups, many of them conservative.

She said the 24-member fellowship’s station will have mostly secular content, but it will include some religious programming, possibly including sermons and programs created by UUs in other parts of the country. Both the Ames and Norman stations will also receive programming from Pacifica Radio, the first listener-supported radio station in the country that has expanded into a network of approximately 150 community radio stations.

Francis isn’t worried about filling airtime. “There’s a list of groups we want to talk to who don’t get that much air time—children’s advocacy groups, peace groups, the Sierra Club. We intend to connect this community,” she said. The station’s mission statement notes that the station will provide “community journalism and programming with a local focus that expresses the values of peace, justice, democracy, and human rights.”

In each case, the frequency is granted for coverage of a rural community a few miles removed from Norman and Ames, but the towers will be located so the signal will reach those larger communities as well. Norman is home to the University of Oklahoma and Ames to Iowa State University. Both Norman and Ames already have public radio stations that carry National Public Radio programming.

The Norman Fellowship has also applied for two more frequencies in the commercial range. Francis, a retired teacher of reading and former NPR commentator, said this type of FCC license has commonly been auctioned to large corporations in past years. With three Obama appointees now on the FCC board it decided to make some of the frequencies available for free to nonprofit groups. “The atmosphere at the FCC just totally changed,” Francis noted.

She said she knew next to nothing about radio stations when she began the application process. “This has been the steepest learning curve of my life, I guarantee you.”

At Ames, Roger Parmenter has shepherded the application process. He moved to Ames in 2007 after retiring, to be close to grandchildren. Learning about the availability of the frequencies, he got the 315-member UU Fellowship of Ames to apply. He himself is a member of a United Church of Christ congregation. With his background in electrical engineering, he liked the idea of bringing a liberal voice to his community.

Not everyone was as pleased with that prospect. Said Parmenter, “I learned that a lady with a strong Christian-right church was telling people that our station would be a danger to the community. She got a group together to pray that we would fail. I’ve never had anyone pray for me to fail before. I guarantee some won’t like our station.” The station will be primarily secular, but, like Norman’s, will have interfaith content and probably some UU programming.

Parmenter said there is a friendly competition to see whether the Iowa or the Oklahoma station gets on the air first.

The Rev. Chuck Freeman, minister of spiritual life at Live Oak UU Church in Cedar Park, Tex., and producer for 13 years of the radio program “Soul Talk,” which airs on an Internet radio station, Progressive Blend Radio, said, “We’re about 40 years behind the Christian right, which owns about 1,600 stations. This is a great move. When people learn they have a place to be heard all kinds of people will want to be involved with it.”

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