Thousands of community groups rejoice at new opportunity for locally owned media.
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.”
LPFMs have saved lives in powerful storms when big broadcasts lose power or can’t serve local communities in the eye of the storm. WQRZ-LP in Bay St. Louis, MS received awards from President Bush and other organizations post Katrina in 2005, when one of the station operators swam across flood waters with fuel strapped to his back to keep his station on the air. The station proved so important that the Emergency Operations Center of Hancock County set up shop with the LPFM to serve the community after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Bipartisan Senators and House members have expressed support for the Local Community Radio Act as a vital way to expand emergency service media across our nation.
“I’m Frank Bluestein from Germantown, Tennessee, one of the several large suburban cities located just outside of Memphis. We have been fighting for the past 10 years to persuade Congress to give communities like ours the opportunity to establish a low power FM radio station. Our city wants to provide community and civic groups, students of all ages, local artists and others the power to communicate over their own LPFM channel,” said Frank Bluestein, a media teacher and Executive Producer of Germantown Community Television.
“Equally important for Germantown, we need a dedicated communication outlet that will serve the needs of our citizens in the event another tornado rips through town or if any kind of natural disaster hits,” continued Bluestein. “In this day and age, emergency management is a must for a city of our size and LPFM perfectly fits our needs. A low power FM radio station can stay on the air even if the power goes out. Low power FM saved lives during Katrina but strangely, the federal government is banning it from this part of Tennessee. That is not fair or wise. We have the right to be as safe as any other community in the US. After 10 years, now is the time! Congress has passed the Local Community Radio Act, and chances are so much greater that groups in towns like mine can apply for LPFM licenses. Germantown is ready to work here and at the FCC to make licenses for communities like ours possible.”
Grassroots leaders were key in helping Senators understand that expanding low power FM was important and urgent. “Our station provides some of the only local service to Gillette when big storms come through, and it puts great content on the air. That’s why so many in our town think it is such a vital resource,” said Pastor Joel Wright of the First Presbyterian Church of Gillette, WY, licensee of KCOV-LP 95.7 FM . “Senators Barrasso and Enzi had concerns about expanding low power FM, but they heard from many Wyoming folks who want these stations, and dropped those concerns. Communities of faith and so many others can celebrate that we’ve jumped this big hurdle to more license being available in cities, smaller towns, and rural communities nationwide. I look forward to working with many other pastors and groups to launch their own wonderful new community voices.”
“The Media Mobilizing Project works with a huge diversity of leaders across Philadelphia — from taxi drivers and immigrant communities to students and low wage workers,” said Desi Burnette of Philadelphia’s Media Mobilizing Project. “Our leaders have been lucky enough to produce multiple programs with WPEB-FM, 88.1 – bringing all of these communities together. But WPEB is a 1-watt station, only covering a few city blocks. Now with the passage of the Local Community Radio Act, Philadelphia has a much greater chance of getting at least one 100-watt station of its own. With low power FM in our community, poor and working people across this region would have an incredible tool to learn together, to understand their shared struggles and conditions, and to work to change them.”
“Our low power FM radio station has allowed Guatemalan, Haitian, and many other hard-working immigrant farmworkers to communicate in their native languages, and to build the power for dignity and respect in the fields of Southwest Florida,” said the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Gerardo Reyes Chavez. “Our radio station, WCIW – Radio Consciencia – has developed womens’ leadership, has allowed us to mobilize rapidly in crises, and has helped us transform not just our community but the hundreds of communities inspired by our struggle. We look forward to helping many other farmworkers learn how to build their own stations and how to expand justice on the FM dial.”
“In the rural areas we serve and all across the country, low power FMs are poised to celebrate and preserve unique local culture,” said Nick Szuberla of Appalshop, a group that uses media to preserve Appalachian culture and tradition while working to improve quality of life. “More low power FMs mean that the vibrant, beautiful, and vital voices of America’s rural areas and small towns will shine – and it will mean sustainable local resources in times of crisis. Low power FM stations can stay on the air in storms and save thousands of lives. Congress and community radio advocates should be proud of the resources they’ve won for American communities.”
“Our group of 150 volunteers here at the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP) is extremely pleased that the Local Community Radio Act has been passed by Congress, and will be signed into law by our fellow Chicagoan, President Obama,” said Shawn Campbell, a founder of CHIRP. “For three years, CHIRP volunteers and supporters have worked diligently toward the goal of being able to apply for a low power FM broadcast license, and we look forward to working with our national allies and the FCC to make sure new stations are licensed in large markets around the country, including Chicago.”
“For decades, the Esperanza Center has worked in San Antonio and beyond to bring people together across cultures, and to ensure the civil rights and economic justice of everyone,” said Graciela Sanchez of the Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice in San Antonio. “Whether we are fighting for the right to publically protest or to save the water systems of our region, we need to communicate and coordinate to effectively organize. Low power FM in San Antonio can unite people across cultures and issues to work together to make this city better for everyone. We celebrate this victory for everyone and pledge to work with allies to win as many stations as possible for communities nationwide.”
Over 10 years, hundreds of groups of all walks of life struggled to bring community radio stations to every community possible, and they cannot all be listed here. We would like to thank the coalition who worked weekly to move this mountain including: Free Press, United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Media Access Project, the Future of Music Coalition, the Media and Democracy Coalition, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Benton Foundation, the Prometheus National Advisory Committee and Board of Directors.
We thank those who were instrumental in this final push including: Reclaim the Media, The Media Action Grassroots Network, New America Foundation, Chicago Independent Radio Project, MoveOn.org, Color of Change, the Christian Coalition, and the National Association of Evangelicals, and Spitfire Consulting. Our partners in supporting community media including the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and the Grassroots Radio Coalition, and Media Alliance, Pacifica, REC Networks, the Alliance for Community Media.
We thank those who have helped at key moments throughout these ten years including: United States Public Interest Research Group, Consumers Union, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, the United Methodist Church Office of Communication, the Indigo Girls, OK Go, Nicole Atkins, the Microradio List, Amherst Alliance, MIcroradio Implementation Project, Pacifica Radio, Common Frequency, Christian Community Broadcasters, KYES -TV, National Lawyers Guild Committee on Democratic Communications, Virginia Center for the Public Press, every FCC Commissioner since 1999 (except for Harold Furchgott Roth).
We thank our radio barnraising partners who have time and again shown up to represent the best of what LPFM can be: WGXC-FM in Hudson, New York with Free103point9; WMXP-LP in Greenville, South Carolina with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; KPCN-LP in Woodburn, Oregon with Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste; WRFU-LP in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois with Radio Free Urbana; WXOJ-LP in Northampton, Massachusetts with Valley Free Radio; WRFN-LP in Pasquo, Tennessee with Radio Free Nashville; WSCA-LP in Portsmouth, New Hampshire with Portsmouth Community Radio; WCIW-LP in Immokalee, Florida with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers; KYRS-LP in Spokane, Washington with Thin Air Community Radio; KOCZ-LP in Opelousas, Louisiana with the Southern Development Foundation; KRBS-LP in Oroville, California with the Bird Street Media Project; and our very first radio barnraising with WRYR-LP in Deale, Maryland with South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development.
“We’ve built community radio stations from coast to coast and around the country,” said Hannah Sassaman, a longtime organizer with the Prometheus Radio Project. ‘The faith and perseverance of low power FM’s legislative champions and the thousands who pushed the Local Community Radio Act has paid off in incredible ways. After ten years of struggle, it’s stunning to know that in the next years, the FCC will work to and begin licensing LPFMs in city neighborhoods, in suburbs and towns, and in rural areas. It’s humbling to understand that new young people will gain a love of telling stories at the working end of a microphone or at home listening to their neighbors. And it’s powerful to know that these stations will launch leaders in every walk of life to change their communities, and this country. We look forward to launching the next generation of community stations with you.”
To learn more about low power FM community radio, visit http://www.prometheusradio.org.