“Gooooooood morning, East Side!”
By year’s end, that could be the chirpy radio wake-up call to 160,000 residents creeping to work in downtown St. Paul, jogging around Lake Phalen or drinking their first cup of coffee somewhere on Payne Avenue.
Except it might not be in English.
It might be in Hmong or Spanish, or Somali, Karen, Amharic or one of myriad other Ethiopian dialects. Maybe even Dakota.
Whatever the programming that hits the airwaves on a newly licensed, low-powered FM radio station that will soon be blinking to life, organizers say it is sure to reflect the brilliant patchwork quilt of new cultures that have made St. Paul’s East Side one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the Twin Cities.
“Pride and unity — that’s our mission. It’s inclusion,” said Carla Riehle, vice president of the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council (DBCC), which was granted the license. “It’s to be a mirror of our community.”
The station is one of four in Minnesota granted licenses by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to build low-powered FM radio stations, which can reach listeners in a 3- to 5-mile radius. Congress changed the rules for such licenses after years of debate in a policy change that could transform local broadcast media across the country. So far, the East Side station is the only one in St. Paul or Minneapolis.
The other three to get the licenses are Park Public Radio in St. Louis Park, the People’s Press Project in Fargo-Moorhead and Two Harbors Community Radio on the North Shore. Hundreds of licenses were sought nationwide in the first round of availability, including 40 in Minnesota. Applicants included churches, ethnic groups, schools and nonprofit organizations such as the DBCC.
The FCC license is for construction, Riehle said, and the permit to broadcast should follow.
The antenna, about two stories tall, will be put up at the site of 180 Degrees, a nonprofit group near the intersection of E. 7th Street and Johnson Parkway that intervenes to turn around young lives. The station itself could be located at the new East Side Enterprise Center opening in June next door to the DBCC office, or possibly at the Dayton’s Bluff Recreation Center a few blocks south.
The station, at 104.7 on your FM dial, does not yet have call letters assigned to it.
“Being east of the Mississippi, it will be W-something,” Riehle said. “That’s part of what the community is really excited about — what we’re going to call this thing.”
That, and other plans, will be discussed at a community meeting and celebration on Tuesday night.
Between advances in technology and a decline in costs for transmitting equipment, the cost to get up and running is relatively inexpensive. The DBCC is seeking a $20,000 Neighborhood STAR Program grant from the city to help with that, and then look to foundations and community sponsors to run the nonprofit station.
Under the license, Riehle said, the station must have at least eight hours of commercial-free programming daily, but the goal is to be running 24 hours a day. Developing that programming will be a true grass-roots process, she added.
“We’re just going to start kind of knitting it together at the table and start figuring it out,” she said. “We don’t want to imprint anything before we get everyone to the table.”
That outreach will be to all cultures now represented on the East Side — and all generations.
“One of the great aspects of this particular project, with the radio station, is it lends itself well for the youth,” said Jesus Ramirez, a DBCC board member who also tries to channel youthful creative energy through the Arts on the Block program. Many younger guys are excited about the prospect of being DJs, he said, but the station will also be looking for young women to get a chance to express themselves.
The East Side has undergone profound cultural changes between the 1990 and 2010 censuses, going from one of St. Paul’s least diverse neighborhoods to its most diverse.
Whites made up 83 percent of Dayton’s Bluff’s population in 1990, but the number had fallen to 39 percent in that 20-year span. Other racial groups have replaced them: The neighborhood’s Asian population grew from 7 percent to 24 percent; blacks from 4 percent to 16 percent; Latinos from 4 percent to 15 percent. Other East Side neighborhoods follow similar trends.
At the same time, the East Side was feeling the pain from the departure of key businesses such as 3M, Whirlpool and the Hamm’s Brewery; and the loss of that prosperity and stability took a toll in terms of poverty and crime.
But the East Side has been undergoing a cultural and economic renaissance, even as the up-by-the-bootstraps immigrant story from more than a century ago plays out again. There are signs everywhere: The old industrial buildings are finding new life as homes and businesses; the Arlington Community Center opens next month; a $1 million Forever St. Paul Challenge grant is going toward creation of a new food hub.
The new radio station will be one more part of that transformation and also of its nurturing.
“This is an opportunity for us to have a way to come together,” said Deanna Abbott-Foster, the DBCC’s executive director. “How do we begin to relate to ourselves as the most diverse community? How does the most diverse community in St. Paul act on its own behalf? This is one way for us to begin to have those conversations.”
The station in St. Louis Park is not as far along in its planning, but Jeff Sibert, president of Park Public Radio, said getting the construction license was a major hurdle cleared.
“We’re starting small and building from the ground up,” he said, and the station is looking for diverse, local-minded programming much like KFAI provides in Minneapolis. “I think there’s a lot of support for something like this.”