Thousands of community groups rejoice at new opportunity for locally owned media
WASHINGTON, DC – Today a bill to expand community radio nationwide – the Local Community Radio Act – passed the U.S. Senate, thanks to the bipartisan leadership of Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and John McCain (R-AZ). This follows Friday afternoon’s passage of the bill in the House of Representatives, led by Representatives Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Lee Terry (R-NE). The bill now awaits the President's signature.
These Congressional champions for community radio joined with the thousands of grassroots advocates and dozens of public interest groups who have fought for ten years to secure this victory for local media. In response to overwhelming grassroots pressure, Congress has given the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a mandate to license thousands, of new community stations nationwide. This bill marks the first major legislative success for the growing movement for a more democratic media system in the U.S.
“A town without a community radio station is like a town without a library,” said Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project, the group which has led the fight to expand community radio for ten years. “Many a small town dreamer – starting with a few friends and bake sale cash – has successfully launched a low power station, and built these tiny channels into vibrant town institutions that spotlight school board elections, breathe life into the local music scene, allow people to communicate in their native languages, and give youth an outlet to speak.”
The Local Community Radio Act will expand the low power FM (LPFM) service created by the FCC in 2000 – a service the FCC created to address the shrinking diversity of voices on the radio dial. Over 800 LPFM stations, all locally owned and non-commercial, are already on the air. The stations are run by non-profit organizations, local governments, churches, schools, and emergency responders.
The bill repeals earlier legislation which had been backed by big broadcasters, including the National Association of Broadcasters. This legislation, the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act of 2000, limited LPFM radio to primarily rural areas. The broadcast lobby groups claimed that the new 100 watt stations could somehow create interference with their own stations, a claim disproven by a Congressionally-mandated study in 2003.
Congressional leaders worked for years to pass this legislation. As the clock wound down on the 111th Congress, they worked with the NAB to amend the bill to enshrine even stronger protections against interference and to ensure the prioritization of full power FM radio stations over low power stations.
Though the amendments to the bill will require some further work at the FCC, low power advocates celebrated the first chance in a decade for groups in cities, towns, and other communities to take their voices to the FM dial.
“After ten years of effort, a $2.2 million taxpayer-funded study, and new provisions to address this hypothetical interference, we are finally on our way to seeing new community radio stations across the U.S. This marks a beginning, not an end, to our work,” said Brandy Doyle, Policy Director for the Prometheus Radio Project. “For the first time, LPFM community radio has a chance to grow, and we’re ready to seize that opportunity.”
“All of us at UCC OC Inc. and at Prometheus express our incredible gratitude to Congressmen Mike Doyle and Lee Terry and Senators Maria Cantwell and John McCain for the leadership and counsel during this process,” said Cheryl Leanza, a board member of the Prometheus Radio Project and a Policy Advisor to the United Church of Christ, Office of Communication, Inc. “Without their work and the work of their committed staff we would not have come this far. At long last the 160 million Americans who have been deprived of the opportunity to apply for a local low power radio station will get a chance to be a part of the American media.”
"I am a leadership organizer from the ranks of the poor working with other low-wage workers – fighting for human rights in Maryland,” said Veronica Dorsey of the United Workers, a human rights organization in Baltimore. “Low power FM radio would allow the United Workers to expand the message of our End Poverty Radio show, which is currently only available on the internet. End Poverty Radio develops leaders and gives workers a way to tell their stories and be heard – and a low power FM station would reach a lot of people who do not have access to the internet. LPFM is a way for those in the community who are struggling to survive to hear stories that they can relate to, and to know that they are not alone in this struggle for human dignity. We can’t wait to work to build low power FM in communities like ours, so we can accomplish these goals."
“Civil rights groups and community organizations have wanted low power FM radio for years, and now the chance is here,” said Betty Yu, coordinator of the Media Action Grassroots Network, a national media justice network with members in many cities and communities that lost their chance to get low power FM radio stations. “From Seattle, Oakland, and Albuquerque to Minneapolis, San Antonio, Kentucky and Philadelphia, thousands of communities know that having access to our own slice of the dial means a tool to build our movements for justice. We have won something huge in Congress, but the fight is not over. Now we need to work at the FCC to make sure as many licenses as possible can be available in rural communities, towns and suburbs, and America's cities.”..........
With the clock ticking toward the end of this year's Congress, the Senate on Saturday passed a new law which will enable community groups, churches and schools across the country to establish new non-commercial, low-power FM radio stations in their cities and towns.
The Local Community Radio Act, which will allow the FCC to issue possibly thousands of new noncommercial LPFM radio licenses, earned broad, bipartisan support after some ten years of organizing by grassroots media democracy advocates from coast to coast. Backers of the bill included a stupefying range of civil rights groups, religious organizations, musicians, unions and garage-bound radio dreamers around the country.
Washington State elected officials played a pivotal role in passing the bill into law; Senator Maria Cantwell championed the bill in the Senate, and House cosponsors included Washington Rep. Jay Inslee.
"This is a huge win for communities across the northwest and across the country who have been pining for more and better local radio, more support for local music and more diversity on the airwaves," said Jonathan Lawson of Reclaim the Media, a Seattle-based media justice organization which has worked alongside other advocacy groups since 2002 to expand community access to media, including LPFM. "Senator Cantwell deserves our thanks for seeing this through to the end."
The FCC initially created the Low power FM service radio in 2002, as a way to counter the dramatic consolidation of radio ownership which followed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and the resulting drop in diverse programming and local voices. However, pressure from commercial broadcasters quickly led Congress to impose substantial barriers to LPFM, so that only a relatively small number of stations were able to launch, and mostly in rural areas.
The new law removes most of those barriers, creating the opportunity for many more stations to occupy unused space on the FM dial. LPFM stations are noncommercial, must be operated by a local nonprofit, religious organization or public institution, and are limited to 100 watts.
Northwest groups that have been able to build and launch LPFM stations have demonstrated the tremendous utility and power of low-power radio. In Woodburn, Oregon, KPCN allows immigrant farmworkers to share news, information and music in Spanish and several other Latin American languages. Spokane's Thin Air Radio and Idaho's Radio Free Moscow provide those communities with local public affairs and homegrown music programs—while giving new broadcasters a place to learn the tools of the trade.
The new law is a landmark achievement for public interest media advocates who have been working on this bill for years. Galvanized by the trailblazing work of the Prometheus Radio Project and the Media Access Project, a host of other groups deserve credit for helping wage the struggle for LPFM: the Future of Music Coalition, Media Alliance, Reclaim the Media, the Chicago Independent Radio Project, Free Press, United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Media and Democracy Coalition, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Benton Foundation and many others.