High Hopes for Low Power: Expanding Community Radio in 2009
by Andalusia Knoll
When you tune in the radio dial across this country you will rarely find news that matches the issues and opinions of this here newspaper. And why is that? Is it because there aren't enough people reporting on grassroots issues and social justice struggles or is it because the the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and powerful media conglomerates have made it extremely difficult for educational institutions, labor unions, religious groups, and community organizations to have their own radio stations? Restrictive laws that do not allow Low Power FM (LPFM) radio stations to acquire broadcast licenses show that it is the latter. Our public airwaves have essentially been privatized by large corporations that don't allow diverse programming on the airwaves. However, there is hope! The Local Community Radio Act (HR 1174), if passed by Congress, should ease these restrictions and allow for hundreds of new non-commercial stations.
Currently there are over 800 Low Power FM radio stations across the U.S. These stations have opened the airwaves to a wide range of music, news, community dialogues and much needed local programming. KOCZ is a Low Power FM radio station in Opelousas, Louisiana that serves as an outlet for zydeco music and community news. KOCZ Director John Freeman believes that accessible media is a vital aspect of democracy and adds, "It’s important to have low power stations across this country. It supports our democracy. If we don't have an ability to communicate with our community, we really don't have much to offer to our democracy in the United States."
Freeman also believes that Low Power FM stations have the power to impact the larger broadcast of corporate stations. While Opelousas, Louisiana is considered the birthplace of zydeco music, for a long time there was no radio station dedicated to broadcasting this popular fusion of Cajun and Creole Music. When KOCZ started giving zydeco music lots of airplay they received tons of positive feedback. Some of the corporate radio stations in the area followed suit and also started broadcasting zydeco music.
In Immokalee, Florida, the LPFM station Radio Conciencia broadcasts not only the music popular among the immigrant farmworkers who reside in the region, but also news in Spanish, Creole and various indigenous Guatemalan languages including M'am, and Q'anjob'al. The Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia based organization dedicated to expanding LPFM and community media, helped farmworkers who were organized with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to start Radio Conciencia in 2003. According to radio host Romeo Ramirez, their radio has played a central role in the Coalition's fight to end abuses at work and also against corporate fast food giants’ unwillingness to pay more than slave wages to the farmworkers who grow their tomatoes.
Ramirez adds, "It is a platform where we can transmit the voice of the people. Media to communicate what the reality is. Media that gives people the opportunity to develop and transmit messages about human rights and the basic rights of the immigrant community. It allows us to talk about abuses at work and discrimination."
Radio Conciencia has also played an important role in times of crisis. When Hurricane Wilma hit South Florida in 2005, few radio stations broadcast warnings geared towards farmworkers, who were both linguistically and physically isolated. In a testimony before a FCC Media Ownership Hearing, Gerardo Reyes Chavez, a farmworker and member of the CIW, said that "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…When people were confused about what was happening they were able to contact us at the radio station to find out the current situation, the imperative of evacuating trailers, and where to find shelter." Low Power FM also played a vital role during Hurricane Katrina where stations like KOCZ 103.7 FM in Opelousas, Louisiana and WQRZ 103.5 FM in Hancock County, Mississippi were the only ones broadcasting in their respective areas in the days following the storm.
Clear Channel, the media conglomerate that owns more than 1,100 AM, FM and shortwave radio stations has come under sharp criticism for their media outlets' lack of response in times of crisis. When a train derailed in Minot, North Dakota, leaking thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into the air, none of the city's six non-religious commercial radio stations aired warnings for local residents. All of Clear Channel's stations were running syndicated programming on autopilot, a form of broadcast that has become all too common with increasing media consolidation. Due to Clear Channel's failure to air crucial warnings, one person died and hundreds were treated for immediate health problems.
Attempting to counter the Clear Channel style of corporatization and homogenization of radio, a broad coalition of media activists, musicians, religious groups and community organizations lobbied the FCC in 2000 to expand the radio dial. The FCC agreed to create a new radio service known as Low Power FM Radio and also to open up "third adjacent" channels for these kinds of stations. This means that if a station currently exists at 89.1 FM the next available Low Power radio station would be 89.7 FM. With current restrictions a station would not be available till the fourth adjacent channel, which is 89.9. According to Kate Blofson, an organizer with the Prometheus Radio Project, this new window for community radio was immediately closed since "the National Association of Broadcasters and NPR began lobbying congress to limit LPFM because of interference concerns. What that resulted in was Congress passing a law limiting LPFM very significantly. Over 60% of applications were thrown out including any possibilities of LPFM in major urban markets."
In order to convince Congress to disallow 3rd adjacent radio stations, the National Association of Broadcasters distributed a compact disc of this alleged interference. It was later discovered that this misleading CD was produced by artificially mixing two previously recorded radio signals and was not a demonstration of actual interference between two FM radio stations. Further debunking this interference claim, the MITRE STUDY, a multi-million dollar tax-payer funded study released in 2003, showed that no interference should be expected.
However, LPFM's opponents still use this argument as a means of preventing licensing of more channels on the dial for new radio stations. Russ Withers, spokesperson for the National Association of Broadcasters, appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee to express his concerns over the creation of new LPFM stations and said, "LPFM stations exist today within 3rd adjacent protection for a reason – to guard against interference to both LPFMs and full power stations."
Northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Radio Station is one of many LPFM initiatives prevented from going on the air because of the lack of licenses for open frequencies. Mary Cich of Boundary Waters Radio says they currently broadcast on the Internet because, "The current restrictions make it absolutely impossible for us to broadcast to our town of Ely, Minnesota. We have collected 1,000 signatures of people who say that they want us to get a license. We are in a town of 3,700 people so 1,000 is a large number."
With wide congressional support, the Local Community Radio Act is set to clear this obstacle. Mike Doyle, congressman representing Western Pennsylvania, is one of the co-introducers of this piece of legislation. Doyle believes that The Local Community Radio Act"has the potential to revolutionize and improve what Americans hear on their radio." If it passes, the airwaves in many major cities and small towns in the United States will be opened up to hundreds or even thousands of new community-based Low Power FM Radio stations.