A free Internet, as we’ve known it, may be slipping away with the FCC’s watered down Net Neutrality ruling and its recent approval of the Comcast NBC merger, but, the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 may provide an antidote to the increasing corporate takeover of our public airwaves. An expanded community radio system could give progressives an additional outlet for presenting ideas, as well as a powerful tool for organizing in both urban and rural communities across the country.
On January 5, 2011, President Obama signed The Local Community Radio Act, making room on the radio spectrum for smaller, community-based radio stations. The signing was the culmination of a decade-long battle between advocates of low power radio and the National Association of Broadcasters.
The Prometheus Radio Project, a not for profit dedicated to the expansion of community radio, called the bill’s passage, “the first major legislative success for the growing movement for a more democratic media system in the United States.”
Before the passage of the Act, restrictions designed to prevent interference with larger radio stations kept low-power FM stations confined to tiny broadcast areas in cities such as university campuses, or to rural areas where airwaves were more open. Low-power radio stations were only allowed to occupy frequencies within four dial clicks of a major radio station.
Community radio advocates have argued for decades with the National Broadcasting Association and NPR, who have lobbied against expansion, that more frequencies could be opened without interference. The new act allows low-power stations within three clicks of a major station, and sometimes as close as two, which will allow thousands of new community radio stations to begin broadcasting in urban areas and existing ones to expand their reach.
What is community radio?
Community radio is a third model of radio broadcasting beyond commercial and public service. Often referred to as Low Power FM (LPFM), community radio stations often have a limited broadcast area, sometimes as little as five miles, or up to a hundred miles. LPFM stations broadcast content that is relevant to a very local and specific audience and which is usually neglected by commercial or public radio (NPR).
Community radio stations are not-for-profit and often operated and owned by the communities they serve. Individuals, groups, and communities get tell their own stories, share experiences, and become active creators and contributors to their local media.
Some examples of community radio:
- Montana broadcaster, Scott Johnson, who broadcasts from his home with a station called Montana Radio Café’. The station features, blues, folk, and jazz music.
- KNDS in Fargo, North Dakota, jointly operated by North Dakota State University and a community group called Radio Free Fargo, which provides training for student broadcasters and features shows programmed by community members.
- KPYT-LP is the voice of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tuscon, AZ. Music programming includes Tejano and Yaqui music (folk and Paskola), Oldies, and Classic Rock. The station airs Public Service Announcements and shows, such as: The Diabetes Prevention Program, Club House Radio, The Education Hour, Vahi Vo’om Hiawai (entirely in the Hiaki language), The Sewa Uusim Radio Show, and Tribal Legacies.
- KDHX in St. Louis, MO. KDHX is one of a few full power not-for-profit community radio stations in the country. It has both paid and volunteer staff, and produces 168 hours per week of music and public affairs programming for its 24-7 broadcast schedule.
How is community radio program different from commercial and public radio (NPR)? What do they do?
- remote reporting of events such as town meetings, high school sports, art openings, holiday parades, and music performances—events of interest to local residents that commercial and public radio ignores. Low-power FM stations are small but they make a giant contribution to local community programming.
- organize and air political debates, hold round-table discussions, and provide extended coverage of all sorts of political events and community issues. They also cover local views on national issues. They focus on localism, diversity and public service.
- broadcast want ads, personals, and public service announcements for the communities they serve. They help connect residents, increase safety, and build a sense of community.
- serve minority audiences who are rarely served by commercial and public radio. For example, current low power stations serve Native American and Asian communities.
- broadcast an interesting and diverse selection of music, sometimes highlighting ethnic music or local talent.
Some LPFM stations are one-person operations but others boast twenty or more program hosts. They vary in professionalism, but they soon learn on the job. Community members become media personalities, and Local listeners are treated to fresh voices combined with an enthusiasm and knowledge about their local communities.
Not all programming is local. Some stations rely on nationally syndicated programming from Pacifica Radio or the show Democracy Now!, which are usually ignored by commercial or local public radio.
If you are interested in applying for a new license and starting a community radio station, you can get more information from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters website. You can also download a free 110-page handbook titled Get on the Air and Stay There: A guide to building and maintaining a non-commercial educational community radio station.