Roots, Radio and Social Change: Why Low Power FM Radio is about YOU

Roots, Radio and Social Change: Why Low Power FM Radio is About You
By Betty Yu

Media watchdog group Free Press’s recent infographic reveals how media corporations are using shell companies to evade the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) ownership rules and gobble up local TV stations across the US. It’s another sobering reminder that we are facing some of the biggest threats to media democracy and free speech in our country’s history. The acceleration of media consolidation and unfair restrictions on community radio and TV have narrowed already limited access to the airwaves for local voices, especially women and communities of color. People of color make up over 36 percent of the US population, but own just over seven percent of radio licenses and three percent of TV licenses.

In an environment in which corporations and the government increasingly control the airwaves, where can social justice movements and marginalized communities go to have their voices heard? Enter low power FM radio (LPFM). Two years ago, President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act after a 15-year organizing campaign led by Prometheus Radio Project and Common Frequency, two grassroots groups supporting community radio. The law marks the largest expansion of community radio in US history. It was a tremendous victory for social change and media justice movements. Local communities now have the power to transform the corporate-driven media landscape.

This expansion of LPFM stations means that hundreds of nonprofit organizations, schools, unions and other community groups have a unique and low-cost opportunity to develop programming to meet their local and issue-based needs. “With new community radio stations preparing to claim a spot on the airwaves, we’re looking forward to hearing truly local news, neighbors speaking to each other about the topics that concern them, and local culture and music programming,” says Julia Wierski of Prometheus Radio Project.

There are many inspiring stories about the profound impact that LPFM stations have had on local communities, not to mention on issues of self-determination, cultural sovereignty and social justice. One such story is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Radio Conciencia , a station in Immokalee, Fla., run by its members. The coalition is made up of mainly Latino, Maya Indian and Haitian immigrants, working in low-wage jobs throughout the state. They started Radio Conciencia WCIW- LP (107.9 FM) in 2003, a 100-watt station that features news of its members’ labor fights, campaigns and other local issues; music; and cultural and educational programming in several languages, including indigenous dialects. Most coalition members lack access to the Internet, relying on the station for basic news, local information and entertainment.

“When Hurricane Wilma hit Immokalee in 2005, we realized the deep value of Radio Conciencia. All local radio stations were transmitting alerts on the impending hurricane, but Radio Conciencia was the only radio that was transmitting information on where to go and what to do in Spanish and in the indigenous languages spoken in our community,” said Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, an organizer with the coalition and Radio Conciencia.

Another great example of a thriving LPFM station is in Opelousas that is home to zydeco music, a Cajun-Creole tradition in southwest Louisiana that dates back centuries. Zydeco was missing on the airwaves in the city, so in 2003 a local group started KOCZ(LP) and started playing the music along with local news, jazz, R&B and other music. It’s had an influence on other radio stations in the area, which now play music in the zydeco tradition.

Members of Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a national media justice network of 170 organizations are taking advantage of the FCC’s LPFM application window. They understand that radio can be a powerful tool for amplifying the voices of grassroots leaders and local communities fighting for social change.

“Community radio stations represent the last bastions of airwaves that are representative of the communities they come from and put the control of whose voices get heard and which stories get distributed in the hands of the community. The potential of the FCC’s LPFM application window is tremendous when we consider that up to 1,000 new radio stations could come on the air in the next few years. Those are 1,000 new voices that are currently not being heard in rural and urban cities across the country,” says Steven Renderos of Center for Media Justice.

How to Apply

The FCC has extended its LPFM application window to November 14, due to the two-week government shutdown. Earlier today, the FCC released a LPFM webinar, which can be reviewed in the FCC archive.

Groups eligible to apply for a low power FM license include local nonprofit organizations, schools and other types of community groups.

The first step in applying is to find out whether a channel is available in your area. In some larger cities, there may only be one or two channels available, making collaboration an important part of the application process. Prometheus Radio Project set up, a website where prospective applicants can join to connect with other applicants, share resources and ask questions. The site also has a tool called Rfree, which lets applicants search for available channels in their area.

Betty Yu coordinates the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net). She manages its national media justice network of more than 100 grassroots community organizations, coordinates nine regional chapters and curates the media justice learning community. She has more than 15 years of experience in community organizing, media activism and filmmaking. Follow Yu on Twitter @bettyyu21 @mediaaction and @mediajustice.