Low Power (Radio) to the People

Prometheus moves radio legislation in Washington. 

By Daniel Denvir
Cory Fischer-Hoffman is not the sort of person who comes to mind when you hear the word “lobbyist.” Before landing a job at the West Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, the 26-year-old activist was working in the farmworker and welfare rights movements.

But when it comes to ensuring that community groups, churches and labor unions have access to low-power FM stations, Prometheus resorts to drastic measures—even working the corporate money-soaked halls of Capitol Hill.

According to Fischer-Hoffman, Prometheus was “dragged kicking and screaming” to D.C. “There was no place to push for more spectrum besides Congress,” she says.

Across the country, radio frequencies have moved into the hands of an ever-smaller number of corporations, with the San Antonio-based Clear Channel leading the way. These companies often pipe in programming from central offices, siphoning local content and color from the airwaves. The current round of consolidation took off in 1996 with the passage of the Telecommunications Act, which deregulated the industry and relaxed ownership limits. (West Philly’s 88.1 FM WPEB is one of the city’s only alternative stations.)

The 1996 corporate giveaway helped spark the creation of a new media justice movement. In 1998, pirate radio enthusiast Pete Tridish (pronounced “Petri Dish”) was one of the founders of Prometheus, emerging from the clandestine studios of Radio Mutiny (West Philadelphia Pirate Radio, or WPPR) after enduring a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) raid. Tridish and others around the country came around to the idea that community radio should expand beyond the anarchists and gearheads who dominated the pirate scene, playing cat and mouse with the FCC.

In January 2000, the FCC agreed. In an effort to both bring pirate stations into the regulated fold and mitigate the harm caused by the Telecommunications Act, it gave low power the green light, creating three new classes of stations—1,000, 100 and 10 watt.

But congressional allies of big media responded quickly. Saying that low power could potentially interfere with established stations’ signals, Congress passed the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act as part of a broader appropriations bill that December. The legislation overruled the FCC decision and eliminated the majority of potential low power frequencies.

Prometheus and other community activists say the interference charge is a ruse and they’ve been fighting to overturn the law ever since. In 2003, a study commissioned by the FCC found that “[low power FM] stations do not pose a significant risk of causing interference to existing full-
service FM stations,” undermining big media’s central point of contention. Armed with that study, activists are lining up behind the Local Community Radio Act (HR 1147), and they’re more optimistic than ever about getting the legislation passed.

The House bill currently has 72 co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. Earlier this month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet held a first-ever hearing on the bill.

Prometheus, under the mantra “Low Power to the People,” has become remarkably good at working it in D.C., bringing religious groups, labor unions, civil rights groups, musicians and public safety advocates together in the fight for community radio.

Prometheus has built this grassroots network through years of helping organizations around the country (and world) build lower power stations. Since 1998, Prometheus has assisted in the construction of 11 stations—a weekend-long whirlwind of hammers, nails and workshops that the group calls a “barnraising.”

According to Joseph Torres of Free Press, a Washington-based media justice organization, Prometheus ensures that Democrats and Republicans hear from constituents who matter to them. While a conservative might not care that independent musicians want a station, they sure as hell care when the pastor of a major church calls up.

“They work really hard at working with all kinds of groups around low power FM,” says Torres. “Whether they go into the office of a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat, they can say that they are with this religious group or this labor union. They can make that claim because they’ve put in the work.”

The legislation has little visible opposition at present, but the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents major media companies, has opposed similar legislation in the past. Reached in his D.C. office, NAB Executive Vice President Dennis Wharton says the group hasn’t taken a position on the bill but has concerns about potential “interference.”

Despite such reservations, the low power movement seems to be gaining the advantage. In June, a federal appeals court upheld an FCC rule maintaining low-power stations’ protections against big-radio encroachment. The NAB challenged the rule, claiming it went against the spirit of the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act. Perhaps smarting from the recent loss, the NAB has been keeping a lower profile around the current legislation.

But the influence of big media in Congress, and its commitment to defending the current media landscape, should not be underestimated. Asked whether current radio ownership and programming are sufficiently diverse, Wharton says, “There’s a healthy debate going on over that. But that’s a completely separate issue from interference. It’s a debate that’s always going to rage on. If you’re an LPFM advocate, of course you’re going to always say that there should be more voices, more spectrum available for other voices.”

In the Philadelphia area, politicians have historically been supportive of low power FM. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a Philadelphia and Montgomery County Democrat, is a co-sponsor of the House legislation. Rep. Chaka Fattah, whose district includes Prometheus’ West Philly office, will, according to a spokesperson, be signing onto the legislation shortly. Rep. Joe Pitts, a Republican whose district includes Lancaster and parts of Chester and Berks counties, sits on the Committee on Energy and Commerce that’s considering the bill, but hasn’t yet taken a position on it.

Prometheus is truly a reluctant insider. In fact, members spend a lot of their time in D.C. helping to train community radio activists to do their own citizen lobbying—working with everyone from independent musicians from Tennessee, a minister from North Carolina, youth activists from Detroit and Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

“We make sure that it’s grassroots voices pushing this legislation,” says Fischer-Hoffman. “It’s really powerful to have real people’s voices entering into political discussions.”

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