(Photo: snostein / Flickr)
There's a classic problem for progressives who want to change the media: the media doesn't like to cover itself. Especially not when it comes to issues that challenge the status quo of corporate control. It's like turning to the military for news about the peace movement, or asking Big Oil to report on climate change legislation.
So you may not have heard much about the grassroots effort to create hundreds of new, non-commercial radio stations. Overcoming nine years of opposition from the broadcasting lobby, the Local Community Radio Act is on the verge of a vote in the House of Representatives.
The bill would expand low-power FM (LPFM) radio, first introduced by the Federal Communications Commission in 2000. Media activists and community groups nationwide demanded this access to the airwaves to combat the deregulation that concentrated media ownership into fewer hands. The FCC began licensing low-power stations between the larger ones on the radio dial, but Congress promptly hobbled the low-power service with restrictions.
If you're wondering why Congress would step on the toes of the agency that regulates communications, well, ask the media - they may not cover media regulation, but they spend millions influencing it.
Fearing competition from stations that would carry original, local programming, broadcasters claimed that LPFM stations might interfere with the signals of full-power stations. The broadcasting lobby demanded that Congress widen the required distance between the radio frequencies of an existing full-power station and a would-be LPFM. Congress made the spacing requirements so vast that only rural areas can meet the criteria for a low-power license.
To put this in context, although 800 LPFMs are already on the air, only one (in Richmond, Virginia) is licensed in one of the 50 largest radio markets. These markets are collectively home to more than 160 million people. Under the new bill, Congressional restrictions on LPFMs would be repealed and the FCC would regain the authority to regulate the radio spectrum in cities as well as rural areas.
Like so many scientific arguments written by industry lobbyists, the case against LPFMs doesn't make much sense. A $2.2 million taxpayer-funded study showed that low-power stations don't cause harmful interference to full-power stations. And 100-watt LPFMs are almost identical to the 250-watt mini-stations (called translators) that full-power stations use to repeat their signals across wide areas. Translators rely on the same equipment as LPFMs, operating with higher power levels at distances even closer to full-power stations. Yet no one's complained about them. The difference is in the name on the license: Incumbent broadcasters own the translators. LPFMs are owned by local governments, nonprofit organizations, churches and schools (in other words, the competition).
Reading the names on licenses is a good way to see the effects of deregulation on radio. Before 1985, there were simply more names on the list. An individual or company could own only one AM or FM station in each market and only seven of each nationally. Several rounds of deregulation later, a single company can now own up to eight radio stations per market and any number nationally.
Contrary to the "free market" logic of deregulation, the lifting of ownership caps has driven prices up. Radio stations that once sold for between seven and twelve times projected cash flow now cost 20-22 times cash flow, requiring equity that most small businesses don't have. Ownership is limited to the very largest chains, which can buy advertising, music and on-air talent at bulk rates - which is why every station on your dial features the same format and cycles through the same overplayed pop songs.
The loss of local programming is only one casualty of deregulation. Media consolidation disproportionately affects women and minority media owners, for several reasons. Historically, women and people of color have often been barred from the business. Back when the radio spectrum was less crowded and commercial licenses were free, only white men got them. In today's cramped radio market, you must buy an existing station to get a commercial license, requiring enormous upfront capital. It's a high barrier to market entry for women and people of color, who face discrimination when applying for bank loans and the jobs needed to gain high-level industry experience.
Low-power radio lacks these barriers. The engineering and legal fees are low, licenses are free and community leadership is more valued than industry insidership. Unlike the slick but vacuous programming produced by commercial radio's huge economies of scale, LPFMs are hyperlocal. With limited resources, they do what big networks won't, covering city council elections, local musicians and high school football.
That may be why the Prometheus Radio Project's campaign to expand LPFM (www.expandlpfm.org) has brought together groups with seemingly little in common besides the need for a locally accountable voice in the media.
Native American Tribal groups hope to use reservation radio to revitalize their languages. Mississippi emergency responders want to broadcast hurricane alerts. Florida's migrant tomato pickers and Oregon's farmworkers use radio to organize for better wages and working conditions. And music fans everywhere want to hear independent musicians who don't have the business ties to get corporate airtime.
Even in the age of Internet, radio remains a vital resource for community organizing and expression. This is especially true for the elderly, speakers of minority languages, and communities with low literacy rates or limited broadband access. With a range of 3-5 miles, LPFM is well-suited for issues that affect a single neighborhood, such as organizing around housing rights or building community gardens.
If the media did cover the fight for low-power radio, the story shouldn't be about FCC rules, or engineering studies, or even the Local Community Radio Act's supporters in Congress. The real story is a national movement of grassroots groups who are claiming the airwaves - after all, we lease them to broadcasters to serve the public interest. If they aren't doing the job, we can take the airwaves back and do it ourselves.
Amber Sands works with the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia based nonprofit organization that builds, supports and advocates for participatory radio as a tool for social justice organizing and community expression.