Radio for the People

The lame-duck Congress has a chance to restore the use of media for the public good.

Nancy Scola | December 8, 2010 | The American Prospect

The Local Community Radio Act, despite its eminent sensibility and bipartisan support (Sens. John McCain and Maria Cantwell were its original co-sponsors), remains mired in the Senate. The bill would give the Federal Communications Commission back the freedom to issue licenses for small, community-based radio stations operating at a strength of 100 watts. It floated around Capitol Hill for five years and passed the House by voice vote last December but is now trapped in that other chamber after a series of anonymous and semi-anonymous holds. As much as the Local Community Radio Act's failure to make it out of Congress is yet another example of a well-organized industry's outsized influence, the battle over low-power FM, or LPFM, represents a larger, decades-old struggle over whether government has an interest in cultivating an American media environment that serves the people, rather than one that simply advances the interests of big business.

Where it does exist, LPFM has proved a valuable asset for communities eager to cover local issues in a media landscape dominated by corporations. In Immokalee, Florida, tomato pickers have used Radio Conscience to organize for a pay raise. In post-Katrina Baton Rouge, an LPFM station run by the local NAACP office debunked rumors, told people which churches were still serving hot meals, and debated the effect that the exodus from New Orleans would have on Louisiana politics. In New York's Hudson Valley, young farmers use community radio to trade tips, share relevant world news, and stay entertained.

Today's battle over LPFM began in the late 1940s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Dealers, facing a newly adversarial Congress, ceded the radio spectrum to big broadcasters. The FCC emerged as a weak public advocate that mostly catered to the needs of major broadcasters.

Then, in 1996, Bill Clinton signed the deregulatory Telecommunications Act, which weakened limits on the consolidation of media outlet ownership and further eroded minority ownership of radio stations, TV stations, and newspapers. Then-FCC Chair William Kennard decided to lessen the damage by issuing licenses for small LPFM radio stations run by nonprofit, educational, or governmental groups. "It was something he could do around the edges," says Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based group lobbying for the Local Community Radio Act, "so that he might not have such a bad term in office."

But large broadcasters (including, for the record, National Public Radio), accustomed to a half-century of control over the airwaves, pushed the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act through Congress in 2000. This measure took decision-making power over LPFM away from the FCC by mandating a policy of "third channel adjacency." This policy dictated that space be left on either side of low-power stations, which is like telling people moving to New York City that they need a full acre on which to make their home. In urban areas, in particular, the bill effectively banned LPFM.

But the bill also contained what might be the seeds of its own destruction. Congress ordered a third-party study on whether LPFM really did interfere with full-power stations. Three years and 2 million taxpayer dollars later, the study found no scientific reason that LPFM and full-power big broadcasting could not coexist on the same radio dial. Introducing the first version of the Local Community Radio Act in 2005, McCain said, "It is time for broadcasters to stop hiding behind false claims of interference when they are really afraid of the competition from truly local broadcasters." But the National Association of Broadcasters and allies have kept up their assault, and the bill has stayed stuck in Congress.

Community radio's lost decade is a particular shame because the 2000s were an era when both our media and political cultures embraced a certain do-it-yourself, participatory ethos, from Web 2.0 to the Howard Dean and Barack Obama presidential campaigns. A generation of small broadcasters lost an opportunity to learn radio, leaving the medium to the likes of Glenn Beck, who have at their disposal 400 Clear Channel stations across the country. Community radio has many of the traits valued in the new media environment. It's local, it's social -- since community members often contribute the few thousand dollars needed for start-up -- and it's mobile.

And, no, the Internet hasn't made community radio obsolete. "If 75 percent of the American people listen to FM radio every day," Tridish says, "then it matters who owns those stations." Radio receivers are far cheaper, and more accessible, than Internet devices. Radio also scales beautifully: Once the initial investment is made, it doesn't matter if 10 or 10,000 people listen. It's far more anonymous than the Internet, as who's listening to what is virtually untraceable. "Radio's not creepy in the way the World Wide Web is," Tridish says. Add to all that the growing threats to net neutrality, moves like the Comcast-NBC Universal merger, and the increasing app-ification of our computers, and it doesn't seem like such a bad idea to have another medium for getting out news, enjoying entertainment, and organizing politically.

In the end, though, radio doesn't have to prove itself to Congress. The radio spectrum belongs to the American people, and at the moment, Congress is enforcing an artificial scarcity just so big broadcasters can dominate the landscape for yet another decade. By passing the Local Community Radio Act, Congress can send a signal that that game is up. For Democrats, it's a chance to prove that they're for the little guy. For Republicans, especially those enthralled with the Tea Party movement, it's a victory in the cause of localism. This lame-duck Congress has a chance to take a stand for the idea that media should actually benefit the people. If only our elected representatives could hear the message.