Subject: [MRN] Low-Power Radio and What the Media Won't Tell You About the
From: "radtimes" <resist@comcast.
Date: Sun, December 6, 2009 15:28
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Low-Power Radio and What the Media Won't Tell You About the Media
07 November 2009
by: Amber Sands
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LPFMs would be repealed and the FCC would regain the authority to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
little in common besides the need for a locally accountable voice in the
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
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
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
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