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Non-Commercial Radio in the United States

Unlike many countries, the United States does not have a domestic government-run radio service. However, some radio stations in the U.S. are “non-commercial,” which means they do not run advertisements and are operated on a non-profit basis. Most are on the FM band and the stations from 88.1 to 91.9 mHz are reserved for non-commercial use. There are several types of non-commercial radio stations:

Public radio stations are typically run by a university or a local non-profit organization. The stations usually broadcast radio programs from National Public Radio, a network that distributes high-quality news programs and other offerings. The stations also usually air programs from two other networks, Public Radio International and American Public Media. Local programs on these stations can include classical music, jazz, folk music or local talk/interview programs, and they usually employ reporters to cover local news. These stations receive some operating funds from the federal government and usually the state government as well, but they rely on listener donations for much of their operation. You’ll hear “pledge drives” several times a year, when the station makes requests for donations from listeners. Here are some popular national programs heard on many stations (and when they normally air):

  • Morning Edition (world/national news-weekday mornings)
  • All Things Considered (world/national news-weekday afternoons)
  • The World (international news-weekday afternoons)
  • Talk of the Nation (call-in public affairs-weekday afternoons)
  • Fresh Air (interview-weekdays)
  • Marketplace (business news-weekday afternoons)
  • Weekend Edition (world/national news-weekend mornings)
  • Car Talk (humorous auto repair call-in program-Saturday mornings)
  • Whad’ya Know (comedy/quiz-Saturday mornings)
  • Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me (news quiz-Saturday mornings)
  • Metropolitan Opera (live opera performances-Saturday afternoons)
  • A Prairie Home Companion (variety-Saturday evenings)
  • This American Life (documentary-weekends)
  • The Thistle and Shamrock (Celtic folk music-weekends)

Community radio stations are usually in larger cities and owned by a non-profit community group. The on-air staff is mostly volunteers: local residents who come in to host a program, usually once a week. One community station has a retired professor presenting a program of early country music, a city bus driver hosting a public affairs call-in/interview program and a postal employee producing a program of rock and roll “oldies.” The program schedule at these stations can be very eclectic, and may include specialty programs for different ethnic groups, including programs in languages other than English. These stations pride themselves on their diverse programming and their commitment to social justice. Like public radio stations, community stations also rely on financial donations from listeners. If you are interested in learning about how to produce a radio program, these stations will welcome you and offer instruction (you may end up with your own radio show). They also welcome people willing to volunteer for pledge drives and other station events and to help out on certain radio programs; it’s a good way to meet people from the community. Some national programs heard on community stations include:

  • Democracy Now! (political news interview-weekdays)
  • Free Speech Radio News (world/national newsmagazine-weekday afternoons)
  • Alternative Radio (interviews/weekly)
  • This Way Out (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender newsmagazine-weekly)
  • Counterspin (media analysis-weekly)
  • Making Contact (topical news magazine-weekly)

College- or high school-owned radio stations either operate as a student activity or to teach students about broadcasting. Usually, the announcers are all students. The type of music most often heard is called “college rock;” new alternative bands from independent music companies. However, stations can offer other types of music, like folk, jazz, blues, rap and even classical. The stations may also broadcast their school’s sports contests, and some cover local or campus news. A few college stations air educational material (occasionally, one can enroll in these courses and earn college credit at home by listening to these programs). In some cases, college and high school stations allow participation by people who are not students, and the station sounds more like a community radio station.

Religious radio: some non-commercial stations are all-religious and present inspirational programming, often national programs delivered by satellite. Many now also present “Christian rock:” popular-style music with a religious theme. There are also commercial religious stations.

LPFM: stands for “low-power FM,” a new non-commercial radio service recently created in the United States to allow local organizations an inexpensive way to get into broadcasting. These stations can only be heard over a limited area (usually no more than about ten miles from the station) and can be like community, college, high school or religious stations mentioned above. If the station operates like a community station, the staff will also welcome your volunteer help and will assist you in learning about radio; again, you may find yourself on the air hosting a program. Unlike other non-commercial stations, LPFM stations can be anywhere on the FM dial.

Randall Davidson is the chief announcer and afternoon news anchor for Wisconsin Public Radio, a network of 31 public radio stations in Wisconsin. He is the author of 9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea (University of Wisconsin Press 2006). He can be reached at [email protected]

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