Saturday, December 18, 2010, just days away from the end of Congress when all unresolved bills die, the Local Community Radio act passed the Senate, after a swift victory in the House the day before.
This victory, which was the culmination of ten years of struggle by thousands of grassroots advocates and dozens of public interest groups, ushers in one of the biggest opportunities
to expand community voices on the airwaves in U.S. history. It is the first major legislative success for the movement for a more democratic media system and indicates its growing power in an age of massive media consolidation and corporate assault on a free and open internet.
The Local Community Radio Act will expand the low power FM (LPFM) service which allows for 100 watt stations to broadcast to a town or neighborhood in a 5-10 mile radius.
These stations have helped farm workers organize for economic justice, environmentalists clean up the Chesapeake, and victims of hurricane Katrina find food and shelter.
Prometheus Radio Project, which has led the ten year fight to open up the airwaves, sees LPFM as the most accessible, affordable way for communities to communicate and organize for a most just and democratic future. The stations cost as little as a few thousand dollars to build and a few hundred to operate each year. “A town without a community radio station is like a town without a library,” said Pete Tridish, co-founder of the Prometheus Radio Project. “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 HISTORY OF LPFM
The LPFM service itself was created in 2000 by the Federal Communications Commission in response to grassroots outrage at shrinking local media. The service was then swiftly curtailed in Congress at the behest of commercial broadcasters.
Radio Free Urbana—WRFU 104.5 FM—is one of the lucky 800 LPFM stations that were licensed. This despite restrictions which have kept LPFM stations out of urban areas for the last 10 years. Since then, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has worked its connections in Congress in repeated attempts to kill the bill. They spent over $3 million
in lobbying April through June of this year on a host of issues including opposing the Local Community Radio Act.
Exploiting a procedure to allow senators to study a bill before passage, the NAB colluded with a handful of Senators to put secret holds on the bill in an attempt to stall it until the
Congressional session was over. But the grassroots fought back. Advocates contacted every Senate office to flush out the holders. They mobilized phone calls, letters to the editor, and local press until the opposing senators yielded. New holds followed. With time running out, groups as diverse as Move On, Free Press, Color of Change and the Christian Coalition created a million person e-mail blast asking people to call their Senators. This
generated thousands of calls. When the NAB put out a letter to all senators saying “thousands of slots are available across the country for new low power stations” without mentioning that these slots are largely in deserts or in wilderness areas without listeners, hundreds rang NAB phone lines in protest.
HULA HOOPING TO VICTORY
Tired of getting the run around, advocates staged a Hula Hoop Party in front of NAB headquarters December 13th to say, “Stop making community radio jump through
hoops—pass the Local Community Radio Act!” Hoopers, jugglers, stilt walkers, and circus performers offered Gordon Smith, former senator and current CEO of the NAB, a
colorful hoop shouting, “come join the future of radio!” You can watch the video at www.prometheusradio.org.
This pressure and action sparked a series of national press pieces. Finally, the bill cosponsors were able to bring the NAB to the table and get them to drop their holds. Some amendments were made that will require further work at the FCC, but the bill
emerged, providing the mandate the FCC needed to start licensing new LPFM stations.
This process could start as early as late 2011.
Taking its cue from the model developed by the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, the Prometheus Radio Project intends to help foster the creation of radio stations as future community media centers across the country to promote social justice and community expression.
“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 for the Local Community Radio Act, 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 www.prometheusradio.org.