Media critics are more accustomed to pointing out problems than pointing to victories. But the emerging, still inchoate and decentralized media and democracy movement was adding new notches to its belt as a result of two rulings by the Federal Communications Commission.
First, on January 20 the FCC decided to permit the licensing of low-power radio stations, which will open the airwaves to local religious, educational and community organizations nationwide. Despite fierce lobbying by the politically connected National Association of Broadcasters, representing a big media that keeps getting bigger, the FCC has approved the creation of cheap-to-build, neighborhood-based stations with limited power--up to l00 watts, which can reach three and a half miles. (Commercial stations often have 50,000 watts and broadcast into many states.) FCC chairman William Kennard said the decision would increase diversity in an era when mergers have led to an unprecedented level of concentration of ownership and commercialization of content in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. "This will bring many new voices to the airwaves," he declared.
Many of those voices mobilized to bring about the decision, firing off thousands of e-mail and snail-mail missives to the FCC attesting to the unique value of microradio. Although the Internet opens up the possibility of expanding listenership beyond the bounds of geography, media activists recognize that nothing can yet match microradio's reach. Some initiated lawsuits and carried out militant civil disobedience, fighting a cat-and-mouse war with FCC enforcement officials who shut down small pirate stations like New York's Steal This Radio, which broadcast for many months from an illegally occupied tenement on the Lower East Side [see Schechter, "(Low) Power to the People," May 24, 1999]. The FCC decision was not an unmitigated triumph: To assuage broadcasters, who have raised the specter of interference with commercial radio signals, the agency is imposing strict technical standards, which some small stations may find difficult to meet.
On the second front, media activists in Pittsburgh are claiming victory in their fight to keep the city's PBS station from selling off an affiliate known for hard-hitting community programming. As Pat Aufderheide reported here last week in "McCain's Real Sin," the financially strapped WQED was trying to engineer the sale of WQEX's license to a religious broadcaster, Cornerstone, that had teamed up with a commercial TV chain called Paxson. The story made news when it came out that presidential candidate John McCain--who received campaign contributions from Paxson--had intervened, writing a letter to pressure the FCC to act quickly on the matter.
Shortly thereafter, the FCC ruled against the activists and the station seemed lost. But in a concession to legitimate concerns, the FCC also issued some loose but substantive guidelines requiring educational TV license-holders to offer more than just Bible-thumping. This proved too much for Cornerstone, which suddenly pulled out of the deal, killing the swap and, for the moment, preserving the PBS station. "We did it," said Jerry Starr, who heads Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting. "We saved the station." Religious broadcasters are campaigning for legislation that would let them show anything they want on educational TV channels. But for now, along with radio pirates weary from a long war with the FCC, the grassroots coalition in Pittsburgh is remembering what it's like to celebrate.