NORTH CENTER — Those complaining that Chicago's FM radio stations all sound the same may have some new options soon.
In October, the Federal Communications Commission will allow organizations to apply for a low-power FM license, the right to transmit a signal over an area of up to 5 miles, for the first time since 2000.
That may not seem like much, since bigger stations are able to broadcast dozens of miles away and the Internet can broadcast stations around the world, but proponents of the low-power stations say that a short-distance radio signal can provide something unique to cities like Chicago, with its varied communities and neighborhoods.
"Chicago is the one that is the most exciting because of the potential that is there to get new voices on the air," said Jeff Rousset, an organizer for the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project that has been pushing for such stations since 1998.
Rousset said the new stations have the potential to engage the city's residents specific to the civic, social and cultural needs of the neighborhoods that their airwaves reach.
It's unclear how many and which organizations will apply for the licenses, which must be used for noncommercial purposes only, but Chicago could have as many as four licenses up for grabs. The licenses are free, but organizations will have to pay to keep their stations operational.
Four licenses is generous, given the number of stations crowding Chicago's dial right now. New York City won't have any new stations. Los Angeles, possibly just one.
Two prospective stations looking to broadcast from opposite ends of Chicago show what the signals could do.
The Chicago Independent Radio Project, better known as CHIRP Radio, has been broadcasting online since 2010 with playlists that are a far cry from the Top 40 music that FM stations are better known for.
Today, it broadcasts 18 hours a day with 35,000 streaming "tune-ins" per month, said Shawn Campbell, CHIRP Radio's general manager.
With a signal that covers just a few square miles on the North Side of the city, Campbell says CHIRP could reach an audience several times larger than it does now while providing that particular part of Chicago with a cultural service it sorely lacks.
"It's still the No. 1 question we get asked: What number are you on the dial?" Campbell said. "People are still very comfortable listening to something on their FM dial."
On the other side of the city, WJPC, which takes its call letters from the black-focused Johnson Publishing Company, is looking to serve the South Side's largely African-American audience.
In 2000, the aspiring broadcaster applied for a low-power FM license but was denied. It has since developed an online stream dedicated to adult urban contemporary music and has a website claiming 101.5 as its future frequency.
"The South Side needs to have a voice of their own. That's not happening right now," said Antonio Chappell, executive director of WJPC-FM. "It would be more local, and about local needs — crime, health care, other important issues. If people know that we are there and they know we can be heard, it could become very important."
Chappell, who quit a career as an insurance underwriter to focus fully on getting WJPC a signal, said he is working with engineers and is eyeing a Bronzeville location at 43rd Street and Princeton Avenue for WJPC's antenna, and hopes a signal could reach 95th Street and beyond.
Any new WJPC signal would continue playing the likes of Usher and other popular music while turning over hours of airtime, Chappell said.
"Music will be our No. 1 service. If we don't play that we can't stay on the air," Chappell said. "But on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the community will have a full run of the radio station."
Campbell said CHIRP can similarly fill gaps in the North Side, which she says is "underserved in the area of local music and local and independent culture."
"This expansion of community radio empowers people in cities," Campbell said.