This weekend, a major milestone in the movement to democratize the American media was achieved: the passage of the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA), the first standalone piece of media justice legislation passed since the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. The bill legalizes FM radio licenses for small, community, non-profit stations all across the country – most notably, in cities where it was previously banned, and it should, over the long run, have as great as impact on our media as the PBA… perhaps greater, in fact, coming at a time when the Internet has multiplied the network and reach of all independent and community media.
There are currently only a few dozen low-power FM radio stations operating across the country, so it’s an unfamiliar form in most places. They are small radio stations, non-commercial and non-profit by definition, and they are licensed to community non-profits, educational institutions, advocacy groups, faith communities, etc. They are largely run by volunteer administrators, DJs, and programmers, and since they are really almost always run by community leaders as a labor of love, they each have voices and sounds as unique and vibrant as the people that comprise them. After ten years of lobbying, grassroots organizing, and negotiations, Prometheus Radio Project and its allies won a final deal that will allow licenses for probably 3-4 of these stations in each major city. (Much more detail is here.) The tenacity and dedication it took to pass this law over the objections of not only the National Association of Broadcasters but also National Public Radio as well cannot be overstated, and Prometheus, Media Access Project, United Church of Christ, Free Press, Future of Music Coalition, the Media and Democracy Coalition, and about a million other allies deserve a hearty congratulations. Their work has a lot to teach us all.
It will take a few years for the stations to actually show up on your dial: the process of applying for a license takes time, money, planning, and a lot of fundraising for infrastructure. There are stations that have been organizing towards this goal for years, and now it falls to community media advocates the equally as Herculean (but often a great deal more fun) task of getting everyone on the air. (And, in an ideal world, Webstreaming and hooked up with local PEG stations, community newspapers, independent media centers, and more.)
There are so many reasons to be excited about this victory: the people power aspect, the amazing creativity of these stations, the fact that radio is still the most accessible form of media out there when you compare the cost of a computer to the cost of a clock radio. Community radio really defined interactivity years before the Internet existed: for LPFMs like Radio Movimiento in Woodburn, Oregon, the audience, the callers, the promoters, the programmers… they are often all the same people, because community radio means just that: owned by the community. I am lucky enough to live in West Philadelphia, where we have 88.1 WPEB-LP on the dial, and I can tell you, there is nothing like turning on the radio and hearing an event announcement for something happening on the next block. For anyone who has ever flyered houses door to door for something, you can imagine what kind of a tool local radio can be for community building and cohesiveness.
In the last two years, we’ve seen a conversation in the public-policy media world about the future of journalism that has included Senate hearings actually discussing whether they financially prop up companies like Gannett (what is this??) Many of these LPFM stations are going to produce and broadcast the community news and public affairs programming that the Federal Trade Commission and FCC have been wringing their hands over in the “Future of Media” and “Future of Journalism” proceedings; the question is, will they recognize it when they see it, and will the larger, federally-and-state-funded public broadcasting system be responsive enough (and adequately in tune with what’s happening outside of DC) to support and engage new, smaller stations as they become a part of the local media fabric.
In the interim – here’s one very important thing you can do: donate to Prometheus to get these stations on the air!