The Rise of Low Power Radio

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Published: September 7, 2009 – New York Times

CRESTON, Mont. — The floor of the broadcast booth at KXZI radio, which is, truth be told, really just Scott Johnston’s front porch, slopes gently down toward the yard, as 90-year-old farmhouse porches tend to do.

Mr. Johnston’s antenna, out by the big cottonwood trees that line the road, is not as fortified as it might be either. Unsupported by wires, it sways in the wind, so that when a storm front strikes northwest Montana, the station’s signal fluctuates. And even in the best of times, 100 watts go only so far — the music cannot be heard even in nearby homes because the signal does not penetrate walls very well.

Mainstream media it is not.

“I think some of my neighbors don’t even know I exist,” said Mr. Johnston, a bearded 58-year-old who looks more like the folk musician he once was than anybody’s idea of a media mogul.

But low-power noncommercial radio stations like Mr. Johnston’s, which emerged about 10 years ago in a brief window of eased federal regulation intended to foster competition with the big corporate radio chains, might be soon about to roar, some communications experts say — or at least squeak loudly enough to be heard.