Hidden deep in the basement of Smith Memorial Student Union there sits an unimposing set of stairs; the kind of staircase most people don’t even take note of unless they’re deliberately searching for it. Even those who actively seek this elusive gateway to the heart of the building can be made to feel like they’re searching for the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Put simply, the sub-basement of Portland State’s most well-traveled building is hardly a campus hotspot, and if the average student knows anything about what lies beyond the door at the bottom of the stairs, it usually has to do with the trash dock. Little do they know there’s a fully functioning radio station—staffed by 11 paid students and upwards of 60 to 70 volunteers—all fighting for a chance to amplify their voices over the city’s FM airwaves.
PSU’s student-run college radio station, KPSU, turned 19 on Oct. 1, but the real celebration is set to take place tomorrow evening at the station’s 19th Birthday and LPFM Party.
The event will feature Karaoke From Hell, a five-piece band that asks audience members to get on stage and sing with them. McMenamins has promised to donate 50 percent of all food and drink sales to the student-run station’s LPFM fundraising efforts.
For nearly two years now, KPSU staff have been diligently preparing for the day the Federal Communications Commission would open a rare licensing window for LPFM applications.
In the world of radio, an LPFM is a low-power broadcast signal transmitted over FM airwaves that reaches a smaller area than its neighboring conglomerates.
“Basically, what it means for the listener, is a city-wide signal on the FM dial,” said Promotions Director Gabe Granach.
Licenses for LPFMs are free, and only nonprofit organizations such as KPSU can apply for them. But licensing windows are also rare, and the number of available channels is significantly less than the number of hopeful applicants.
The FCC was slated to open its first LPFM licensing window since 2000 today, with the deadline for applications set for Oct. 29. Due to the partial U.S. government shutdown, however, that window has been further delayed.
“Everything that was supposed to be submitted during the shutdown window will be due 24 hours after they reopen,” Granach said. “So what that means is that there’s going to be a pretty serious backup, and that the already lengthy waits for the FCC to process things is going to be even longer.”
“Hopefully this gets figured out quite soon,” he added. “Because we’re raring to go.”
Tomorrow’s 19th Birthday and LPFM Party—which will start at 7:30 p.m. at Lola’s Room at the Crystal Ballroom—was strategically planned for the day after KPSU had anticipated submitting their application.
With the shutdown still in effect, Granach said the event will just be more of a birthday celebration now. He’s not too discouraged by it, though.
“After two years, what’s another—I don’t know, hopefully it’s not longer than a month,” he laughed. “I guess all we can really do is smile and wait.”
Keegan Meyer, who stepped into the role of station manager in June, is confident that KPSU will get approved for one of the highly coveted LPFM licenses after the window opens.
In addition to meeting five of the six FCC requirements for licensure, the station’s freeform radio format, which allows DJs to broadcast whatever kind of show they want, is relatively rare.
“There isn’t a college radio station on the Portland FM spectrum,” Meyer said. “It is a very homogenous market.”
If KPSU does receive an LPFM license, Granach said the possibilities are endless. He sees Portland as lacking a station that caters to up-and-coming local bands, as well as a station that reflects the diversity of the city’s young culture.
“I think a lot of the future of the station is kind of hinging on this LPFM application,” Granach said. “It’s really a make or break time for the station.”
Meyer estimates five to six LPFM licenses up for grabs in the Portland area, and he feels strongly that KPSU deserves one of them.
“I think having an FM signal [would] be a huge game-changer,” Meyer said. “Because PSU has 30,000 diverse student backgrounds, we [would] be able to be much more of a pipeline for students to amplify their voice and experience.”
With windows slated to open in markets across the country, Meyer is hopeful this LPFM window will lead to a culture-enhancing revolution in broadcast.
“This is going to be such a golden-age movement for radio, and to be a part of that is going to be really helpful in letting people know that KPSU is back on the air, that we have a college radio station,” he said.
Meyer, who likes to joke that he’s been with the station longer than he’s been at PSU, got his start as a volunteer DJ during summer 2010, right before his first term of classes.
He arrived to KPSU just two months after the station went silent over the airwaves due to a lost time-sharing agreement with KBPS 1450 AM, a local station owned by Portland Public Schools. The station has been limited to streaming online at kpsu.org ever since.
“As soon as the 1450 AM slot came off [the air], it was what we call the dark ages,” he said.
The dark ages, according to Meyer, were characterized by apathy, ego and a deliberate abuse of participants’ privileged access to studio equipment. It wasn’t until last year when former station manager Jay Turk stepped into the leading role that the culture began to shift.
“Jay was such a colorful and warm, fuzzy spirit, and he had been here for so long,” Meyer said. “[He] should’ve been a manager earlier but the Publications Board decided not to hire him, and the station suffered the consequences, unfortunately.”
Meyer credits Turk with restoring values to KPSU and cultivating a spirit of unity among the staff and volunteers—the roughly 60 to 70 DJs who donate their time to produce regularly scheduled programming for the station.
“[Volunteers] make our vision happen,” Granach said. “Everyone’s job is really to help the volunteers anyway. It’s not like we’re just here to play radio with our tiny little group; it’s about the entire station.”
Volunteer DJs are both students and non-students from the Portland community, the latter of which must pay a fee to host a show. A few of them have been with the station for as long as 18 years.
Meyer said some volunteers land at KPSU because they are fascinated with the idea of media, and others simply because they want to get involved on campus.
“It seems like a lot of people come here because they don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said. “They’re in college, they want to make the most of their experience, and then they come here and are like, ‘Oh my god, everyone is so warm and welcoming!’”
Granach, who stepped into the picture after the dark ages had already ended, said that everyone who is currently a part of KPSU has a genuine love for the station.
“None of us are getting paid enough to be down here without wanting to be here,” he said. “We’re having fun, and people can see that; it’s starting to sort of permeate into the whole structure of the station.”
While hopes at KPSU are certainly high given the years of work staff have dedicated to the pursuit of an LPFM signal, Granach doesn’t see a denied application as the end of the world.
“Would it be soul-crushing? No. It would definitely put a stop to the vision that we’ve been working toward for the last couple of years, but to me, that wouldn’t be a cause to stop at all,” he said.
Meyer shares this sentiment. The important thing, in his opinion, is that they tried. “I don’t think I could feel disappointed or ashamed at all if it weren’t to go through,” he said. “If it doesn’t, it was still worth our time.”