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Radio Revolution: West Philly's Prometheus Promotes Stations by the People, For the People

The stated mission of the Prometheus Radio Project is to democratize radio stations, to move the power of the airwaves beyond the handful of commercial carriers that currently dominate the spectrum.

Radio revolutionaries got their start on June 18, when Prometheus staffers held a class called "How to Build an FM Tuner" at Nonprofit Technology Resources. The class was co-organized and marketed by the Hacktory, a local maker group.

The idea behind the class was to show how an FM-tuner can be built simply and cheaply, using familiar electronic building blocks such as inductors and capacitors. Only 15 components in all were required to build a working tuner. The total cost of all the parts was $5.

The class had a dozen students, and each finished the class with their own working FM tuner. In an effort to make the class available to all, materials were supplied in both English and Spanish.

Maggie Avener, the Technical and Training Organizer at Prometheus, led the class. Avener has been around the community radio space since helping her father with his own show when she was 5 years old. She also has a background in environmental engineering,

With a background in engineering, it's not surprising that Avener's favorite Prometheus project involves creating and installing new radio stations. In projects from California to Florida, Prometheus has directly helped launch a dozen local radio stations in a process called barn-raising.

After prospective radio stations have acquired their licenses, they will contact Prometheus. Over the course of a weekend a few hundred people from the local community, including carpenters, musicians and engineers, gather to help build the station. During the weekend, Prometheus community members also teach classes ranging from doing radio projects within prisons to on-air technique. The most recent barn raising was for WGXC in Hudson, New York.

In addition to barn raising efforts, Prometheus also has a dedicated lobbying presence to support community and low-band radio. Brandy Doyle leads these efforts as Policy Director.

According to Doyle, it was impossible for urban areas to set up any low-band radio stations because of federal legislation requiring a minimum distance between low band and full power radio stations. Because low band (as low as 100 watt) stations are much cheaper to run than full power (usually 50,000 watt) stations, this restriction in effect outlawed low-band radio stations in cities. With the passage of the passage of the Local Community Radio Act in 2010, however, more community radio stations are now possible.

Prometheus originated in 1998, founded after the FCC shut down West Philly-based pirate radio station Radio Mutiny. The shutdown was fairly big news at the time, getting front page coverage from the City Paper. Like Radio Mutiny, Prometheus is also based in West Philly, in the basement of the Calvary Church at 48th and Baltimore.

Ed Cummings (aka Bernie S.), who sits on the board of Nonprofit Technology Resources and has been involved with the low-band radio community in Philadelphia since the early days, is proud of the accomplishments Prometheus has made. In his estimation, "There wouldn't be nearly as many community radio stations in the country today without the efforts of Prometheus."

SALAS SARAIYA reports on the technology community for Flying Kite. Though he's had a license for more than a decade, his next car will be his first. He loves Philly for its micro-brews, roof decks, and independent spirit. Connect with him through twitter @salasks. Send feedback here.

Maggie Avener, right, discusses soldering with a student.

Prometheus intern Roger Palomeque displays a finished tuner.

Prometheus staffer Ana Martina, left, works with a student.

Photos by Salas Saraiaya
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