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Spanish-Language Radio Station In Lebanon Is A Hit With Listeners

Radio Omega, a low-power FM broadcaster, is a nonprofit link to an appreciative Latino community.

By John L. Micek

May 31, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

LEBANON -- Its transmitter isn't much bigger than a videocassette recorder, its signal fades at the edge of downtown and its headquarters are indistinguishable from the other tidy row homes on a quiet side street here.

But for the Latinos who live in this recovering steel city midway between the Lehigh Valley and Harrisburg, the 100-watt mix of Latino music and public affairs programming put out by a tiny station called Radio Omega is a welcome reminder of home.

''The Latino community, we really identify ourselves by our music,'' said Jessica Tavara, one of a staff of 12 volunteers at the nonprofit station formally known as WOMA-LP. ''This brings us closer to our culture.''

Indeed, the brightly colored sign that hangs above the station's entrance seems to say it all: ''Musica y mucho mas.'' Music and much more.

Doug and Dalila Neatrour began operating the station – named for Dalila Neatrour's favorite radio station in her native Panama – in 1997 in Reading. It is Lebanon County's only Spanish-language station.

It is also Pennsylvania's first low-power FM station, part of an experiment established by the Federal Communications Commission five years ago to return the nation's corporate controlled airwaves to the public. The agency grants the licenses exclusively to nonprofit or public interest organizations.

Radio Omega competes for space among the 50,000- and 100,000-watt behemoths that feed the public a commercial-punctuated daily diet of music, news, weather, traffic and talk (risque and otherwise).

The low-power stations' signals aren't strong enough to out-muscle the commercial big boys, enabling the upstarts to live an occasionally uneasy coexistence with commercial radio. There are now more than 240 such stations on the air nationwide, according to the FCC. Hundreds more are on the way.

For an old radio hand like Doug Neatrour, who has spent most of his life working in the business, the new licenses came along at the perfect time.

''You read so much about the consolidation of radio. Five corporations control the majority of stations,'' he said. ''There go the local broadcasters. That isn't right.''

Radio Omega began its life on the AM band when the Neatrours set up shop in Reading, just a few years after Doug returned to the United States from a National Guard posting in Panama, where he met and fell in love with his wife.

''She came up here with me and noticed that there were no Spanish stations,'' Neatrour said of the station's genesis. The fledgling operation rapidly gained a following among Reading's Latino residents.

But with full-time jobs to balance – Dalila Neatrour works as a bank teller, Doug in the public affairs department at Fort Indiantown Gap – the commute from Lebanon to Reading overwhelmed the couple.

The move back to Lebanon was made easier because their landlord had decided to sell the building where the station was. In 1998, the Neatrours began broadcasting in Lebanon at 1630 AM, just a hop, skip and jump from their former home at 1610 on the AM dial.

In May 2001, the station moved again, this time to 1600 AM. Backed up by a 500-watt transmitter and a deal with a Lancaster County broadcaster, Radio Omega's signal spanned four central Pennsylvania counties, reaching 70,000 listeners.

Not long after, the Neatrours applied for the low-power FM license and formed a nonprofit group, The Latino American Media Organization of Pennsylvania, which would be eligible under federal rules to run it.

A board of directors now controls the station. Doug Neatrour holds the title of executive director. The organization's official tax-exempt status, referred to as a 501(c)(3) after the applicable provision of the U.S. Tax Code, is pending.

The FCC awarded the new nonprofit a construction permit in July. The new WOMA-LP, now at 93.1 FM, first aired in September.

According to Doug Neatrour, the station has a range of about 10 miles, and can often be heard in Harrisburg, 40 minutes to the southwest.

Sure enough, on the eight-mile drive on Route 72 that connects Lebanon's city center to its rural outskirts, Radio Omega's signal is strong and healthy – and the car pulsates with salsa beats.

But when the road dips into a valley about 10 miles from downtown, the speakers start to crackle and sounds of the Top 40 start to bleed through the signal. Twelve miles from center city, you can't hear it at all.

But it reaches far enough.

''The community is so happy,'' said volunteer Milli Hernandez, who moved to Lebanon from her native Puerto Rico two years ago. ''The people hear the station … now they know information about things and about the activities. They are so happy.''

Doug Neatrour agreed.

''We tell them that is a community station, that it belongs to them in a sense,'' he said. ''I think they sense that.''

Lebanon leaders have used the station to help soothe public nerves after a confrontation between police and some Latino residents, Mayor Robert Anspach said.

They've also used it to let city dwellers know about a Spanish-language handbook written to guide them through the city's bureaucracy, from getting a building permit to complaining about a neighbor's trash.

''Part of their mission is to provide information to a group … to help them more easily assimilate,'' Anspach said. ''It will have an impact.''

Lucy Fecha, coordinator of Lebanon's Hispanic Outreach program, said the city's only other outlet for Latino programming is a one-hour weekly radio show on a local AM station.

''It's excellent to have Radio Omega on board,'' Fecha said. ''They provide 24/7 coverage.''

In a region known for its vast spreads of uninterrupted farmland, lunch pail conservatism and the overwhelming pallor of skin tone, the station is an unlikely oasis.

According to U.S. Census data, Latinos make up 5 percent of Lebanon County's more than 121,000 residents. Statewide, those who identify themselves as Latino account for 3.2 percent of Pennsylvania's 12 million people, census data shows.

Radio Omega recently moved into new headquarters on Willow Street, near the heart of downtown Lebanon. Pictures of the renovations bedeck the walls in a cafeteria/waiting room toward the back of the first-floor studios.

For most of the week, Radio Omega is run by an unassuming personal computer that sits on a desk in the station's main studios. On weekends and some weeknights, volunteers come in to offer live programming.

Dalila Neatrour, for instance, hosts a children's show on Sunday nights. Another popular program provides information on navigating the baffling bureaucracy of the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service.

''Everyone can be on the air,'' Doug Neatrour said. ''Except me – my Spanish isn't so good.''

For volunteers Hernandez and Tavara, the children's show is an important way of passing their culture along to a younger generation.

''They try to keep the culture from when we were kids,'' Hernandez said. ''It's great.''

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