Make More Local Radio!

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There is a new sound on the radio. Listen past the endless
drone of manufactured music and centralized news feeds,
and you might already hear it. It started with the murmur
of a few hundred community radio stations, broadcasting
with the wattage of a light bulb via rooftop antennas. Now
this sound is about to grow.
After nine years of nationwide grassroots organizing,
Congress is finally ready to move on the Local Community
Radio Act (, which will greatly
expand the number of low power FM stations in the United
States. This popular, bipartisan legislation is on the fast
track to becoming law, with votes before the House and
Senate just around the corner.
In response to massive media consolidation, radio
advocates pressured the Federal Communications Commission
to create the low power FM (LPFM) service in
2000. LPFMs are smaller stations that fit between larger
ones on the dial. They are local, non-commercial, and
inexpensive to build and operate, making them accessible
to just about anyone.
Predictably, Clear Channel and other big broadcasters
cried wolf about “signal interference.” So Congress put the
smackdown on low power radio, restricting LPFMs to rural
areas and denying licenses to hundreds of applicants. It
was then proven by a $2.2 million tax payer funded study
.2009.pdf) that low power stations create no significant
interference to the signals of full power stations.
But it isn’t signal interference the media moguls are
really worried about. LPFMs are competition. They sit on
valuable spectrum real estate that incumbent broadcasters
could use to repeat their signals over ever-larger areas. And
LPFMs put mainstream media to shame, reflecting and
responding to the needs of their communities and highlighting
local voices and local perspectives. So broadcasters
threw their weight around Capitol Hill and managed to
sink the Local Community Radio Act in two previous legislative
Re-introduced in 2009 by Reps. Mike Doyle (D-PA) and
Lee Terry (R-NE) and Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA)
and John McCain (R-AZ), the Local Community Radio Act
( is on the
move. The bill recently sailed through the House Subcommittee
on Telecommunications, Technology and the Internet.
The bill has even gained the support of its former skeptics
in Congress, including Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), a
former broadcaster, and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), who was
a lead co-sponsor of the bill that originally restricted low
power radio in 2000. Longtime LPFM supporter Rep.
Henry Waxman (D-CA) helped pass the bill out of the
Energy and Commerce Committee on October 15th with a
unanimous voice vote. And on November 19th, it passed
unanimously by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science
and Transportation.
Co-sponsor Rep. Anna Eschoo (D-CA) summed it up:
“All I can say is, it’s about time… It was absurd and ridiculous
that broadcasters went to such great lengths to block
the public from having some small measure of access to
the airwaves, and disgraceful that we had to spend more
than two million dollars to prove what the FCC already
had shown—that LPFM would not interfere with full
power stations.”
With hundreds more local, independent radio stations,
imagine how much better prepared our country would be
to discuss complex issues, like health care and immigration.
We could broaden the dialogue past the corporate
talk show echo chamber. Local musicians (futureofmusic.
org/issues/radio/low-power-fm-lpfm) could sidestep
industry gatekeepers to share emerging music. And local
democracies would be revitalized by public awareness and
debate over local issues.
A look at existing LPFM stations gives us a glimpse of
what is possible. Run by community groups, schools,
churches, and local governments, many LPFMs operate as
community pillars. They broadcast local news and events
and provide essential information during emergencies
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf, low power radio
was the only source of emergency information in a number
of counties. Residents in East Texas tuned battery-operated
radios to KZQX while they waited a week for power to be
restored. At 100 watts, KZQX easily ran on a small generator.
Low Power radio brought information to Katrina evacuees
in the Houston Astrodome. (
story/story.php?storyId=4846595) In Florida, the
Coalition of Immokalee Workers built Radio Consciencia
neapolitan), a powerful tool in forcing McDonalds
and Taco Bell to ensure better wages and safer working
conditions. During hurricane season, Radio Consciencia
broadcasts emergency alerts in Spanish and Mayan languages
spoken by farm workers.
When it’s not busy saving lives, local radio supports the
survival of arts, culture, and even ecosystems. In
Louisiana, KOCZ ( keeps the region’s heritage
of zydeco music on the airwaves. Low power station
KCUW ( run by the Umatilla Tribe in
Oregon, offers live coverage of cultural events on the reservation.
And low power WRYR ( covers the
environmental impacts of development on the Chesapeake
If the Local Community Radio Act passes, urban neighborhoods
will finally have access to community-based-stations.
Low power radio’s 3-to-5 mile range could reach a
significant number of listeners in dense urban areas. In
North Central Chicago, the Chicago Independent Radio
Project ( hopes to create the
city’s first independent music and arts station. In Minneapolis,
the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, one of the
many groups denied a license in 2000, wants to connect
the Hmong community through radio broadcast.
For blogosphere readers who think broadcast is dead in
the age of Internet, think again. Radio is still the most accessible
medium out there—it does not require expensive
equipment, literacy, or a broadband connection. And local
radio can mesh with digital age technology in creative ways.
For example, radio antennas are well positioned as neighborhood
wi-fi hubs. Internet makes mobile radio studios
possible. Web 2.0 spaces allow for collaborative radio production,
overcoming constraints of time and space.
As local governments build new broadband networks,
radio stations are natural candidates to grow into community
media centers, where residents can learn to become
media producers as well as informed consumers.
With so many success stories, more low power radio is
a bipartisan no-brainer—it is wildly popular, non-controversial,
and costs taxpayers nothing. It would provide
communities an outlet for local voices and local talent.
The only obstacle left is making the bill a priority during a
busy Congressional session.
Take action on transforming our media. Contact your
legislator to support the Local Community Radio Act:
Danielle Chynoweth works with the Prometheus Radio Project
(, a Philadelphia based nonprofit
organization that builds, supports, and advocates for
participatory radio as a tool for social justice organizing and
community expression.
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 ushered in one of
the biggest surges of media consolidation in U.S. history.
Women and minority-owned radio stations were
gobbled up by media giants, investigative journalism
was deemed too expensive and was dispensed with,
and radio stations were transformed into automatons
piping the same love song propaganda and sensational
news into every community.
But people fought back. Radio pirates took to the
airwaves in unprecedented droves in the 1990s. Indymedia
spread from the Zapatista movement and Global
South to the United States when the first Independent
Media Center in 1999 broke the real story about the
cause of the protests against the World Trade Organization
in Seattle. After radio pirates in Philadelphia were
shut down for broadcasting without a license on public
airwaves ro which they had no other access to, they
decided to bust open the Federal Communications Commission
and let everyone in. They marched on this
obscure regulatory body, which was not accustomed to
being the center of attention, building a spectacular
puppet of the FCC chairman being controlled by corporate
media. They got the FCC’s attention, and worked
with them to invent a new kind of hyper local radio:
Low Power Radio (LPFM) that burns at the wattage of a
light bulb and reaches about 5 miles.
It was around this time that a fuzzy-faced guy
with thick glasses showed up in Champaign-Urbana in
a broken down car and sat around a table with a
bunch of us to talk about starting a radio station. He
called himself Pete Tridish, his pirate name, and
showed us how to fill out complicated FCC forms to
apply for a license. We did, and after many years, and
some battles in Washington, we got a license to
broadcast Radio Free Urbana (WRFU). While waiting
on the snails pace of the FCC, we started the Independent
Media Center in a living room, moved to Main
Street, and were contemplating buying the post office
building as a place to expand our media production
and performance venue, and to locate WRFU. We did,
and teamed up with Pete Tridish and his band of
merry ex-pirates at Prometheus Radio Project to hold
a “radio barnraising” – building our station rapid fire
in a weekend while training the next generation of
radio activists.
We were one of the lucky ones. After LPFM was created,
Congress moved to restrict it to rural areas—
and places that pass for rural like Champaign-Urbana
—knocking out the ability to have LPFM in larger
cities. While we have been growing our station,
Prometheus Radio and allies have been fighting in
Congress to overturn this restriction, and victory is
now on the horizon. In June, I joined the Prometheus
Radio staff and I wrote this piece for the Huffington
Post that tells more of the story—Danielle

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