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KICI-LPFM: A Brief History of U.S. Radio and Low Power FM Stations
Nicholas Johnson
February 2, 2022

[KICI Station Manager Holly Hart and Station Producer Craig Jarvie. Photo credit KICI-LPFM.]

Radio amateurs have led the way with much of humankind’s “technology” as we now call it. Starting with home-built “rigs” (transmitters and receivers) broadcasting Morse code (dots-and-dashes) it soon evolved in the late 1920s into something closer to what we knew as community AM radio stations in the 1930s and beyond – with local news, dramas, music, sports and other entertainment. Once commercials were acceptable, our stations’ utility for marketing began to dominate their “service.”

Other countries’ systems (e.g., Britain’s BBC, Japan’s NHK, Sweden’s Sveriges Radio), were public, largely independent of government control, and non-commercial. Their example was such that we eventually created non-commercial, educational radio stations.

But as the courts evolved the law, those who owned the U.S. media controlled their content (subject to modest FCC regulation). Individuals might be invited to use the station (e.g., as a guest on a talk show), or buy commercial time, but no one had a right to broadcast. The same rules applied to newspapers, TV, cable systems, and even St. Patrick’s Day parades.

As an FCC commissioner, Nicholas Johnson advocated for members of the public to be able to participate in an American broadcast democracy. That ultimately took the form of “public access” channels on cable TV delivery systems.

After he left the FCC he continued these efforts, including the support of what became the FCC’s proposal for The Low Power FM (LPFM) radio service. (FCC, “Low Power FM (LPFM) Broadcast Radio Stations.”)

LPFM stations are authorized for noncommercial educational broadcasting only and operate with transmitters putting out no more than 100 watts. This creates a coverage area of about 3.5 miles.

It’s not easy to create such a station. There are FCC requirements and forms, electrical engineering to eliminate station interference, creating an organization, raising funds, acquiring, and installing equipment. And, once operating, the challenge of creating an audience and maintaining enthusiasm. There are now (2022) a little over 2,000 LPFM stations still operating. For more information see, “About Low Power FM,” Radio Survivor, December 4, 2021.

KICI-LPFM is Iowa City’s community, low power FM station. You can find out more about it on its website and Facebook page, “KICI Iowa City Local Radio – 105.3 FM.”