October 24, 2008
Imagine turning on the radio and hearing news about your neighborhood, or local music, or information about local issues. Now imagine building your own transmitter, broadcasting over the local airwaves information on local politics, interviews with activists and artists, or playing your favorite local music. Sound good? Welcome to the world of low-power radio, a growing national movement of people-powered broadcasting.
Unfortunately, radio stations in most American cities and suburbs play exactly the same songs, chosen by the same or similar DJs and punctuated by the same syndicated newscasts. The average citizen can't get on air without money and connections, a direct result of the media consolidation  that has changed the listening landscape over the past 20 years.
The few corporations that have swallowed up hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations, are largely uninterested in the small and local, or in progressive, critical reporting or new music. In 1996, after media giants lobbied Congress to allow single companies to own more radio stations, the FCC replaced the former cap of 40 or so with almost unlimited  ownership. Big media bought up local stations like mad, replacing local shows with standardized formats.
Media Consolidation Harms Music
A 2006 Future of Music Coalition  (FMC) study  found that just 15 formats describe three-quarters of all commercial radio. While the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) counts "rock" and "arena rock" as distinctly separate music categories, lauding the diversity of the airwaves, FMC notes that much of the music is the same. Indeed, up to 80 percent of songs in those "different" categories are overlap. Radio playlists are hot commodities  for major labels that pay for inclusion. Consequently, independent artists have little chance for airplay.
Even without all the payola , if a company's audience is 10 million, it wouldn't make economic sense for them to tailor their broadcasts to minority--i.e. local--tastes. These companies have enormous power in the music industry: Clear Channel, for example, now owns almost 1,200 radio stations, effectively controlling  the rock market."
Media Consolidation Hurts Democracy
The radio airwaves are more than just a business platform for content owners, they're a place where people can create, and engage with, culture and politics. Consolidation limits political and news reporting, too: Commercial radio doesn't represent the vast range of political and social concerns out there. In the past, the FCC regulated media ownership, with the idea in mind that the country is better off when diverse voices are speaking, debating and making music. Unfortunately, just like with net neutrality, corporate media lobbied to change the rules, and many diverse voices disappeared.
Low-power FM Resources
LPFM Station Guide
Media Consolidation Documentary with Youth Perspectives
Resistance Is Possible!
But don't despair just yet; there is a solution! Low-power FM radio (LPFM ) is a grassroots campaign to convince the FCC to approve free licenses for transmitters of 100 watts or less (around four square miles), so long as they are community radio stations. This means licensees must be
A private, non-profit educational organization;
A non-profit organization with a demonstrated educational purpose; or
A government or public agency, board or institution, like a public school.
In the first window for licensing applications, the FCC received over 800 applicants, and the first wave of LPFM was born. LPFM consists of people underrepresented on commercial radio and determined to create their own media and teach others how to do the same.
"Part of our project," says Cory Fischer-Hoffman of Philadelphia's Prometheus Radio Project , "is to demystify the technology so people aren't kept away from making their own media." Prometheus organizes "Radio Barnraisings " from New Hampshire to Tennessee, helping folks build their own LPFM stations from the ground up.
Because LPFM doesn't have high startup costs or corporate focus on the bottom line, many more people can get involved and have their say-- especially youth. Mica Alcaniz from the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP ) points out that young people "are especially shut out of broadcasting" these days, since they need serious contacts and, as another LPFM worker put it, "years of kissing ass" to get into commercial radio. Alternatively, you have to be in a college that has a radio station. But college radio isn't enough because colleges aren't required to serve the non-college community, unless they get a community radio license. Hence, LPFM stations are attracting youth in droves .
While some suggest radio's popularity has shrunk due to the internet's rise, CHIRP's founder and president, Shawn Campbell, argues that "people haven't left radio, radio left the people," in response to radio's homogeneous, centrally-controlled programming. In other words, if radio represented people better, they would listen and participate. Some anecdotal evidence: Every LPFM activist I talked to described broad support from their communities. People appreciate the intimacy and immediacy of broadcast radio, and are eager to participate and support it when it relates to their needs and interests. Some LPFM stations have hundreds of volunteers and have raised enough donations to build and staff studios across the country.
Unfortunately, the FCC hobbled the LPFM movement right out of the gate. By restricting licenses to rural areas it's more difficult to reach listeners dispersed across a wide area. In cities, with folks living close together, LPFM could reach and represent far more people. So why the restriction? Big media companies claimed LPFM could interfere with their transmissions on neighboring frequencies. However, a two-million-dollar independent study (PDF)  found that interference would not be a problem--what usually happens is that the more powerful signal simply wipes out the weaker ones. And yet the guys with the big transmitters continue to scream bloody murder.
The LPFM movement continues the fight for community radio, but they need our help. Last year, the Local Community Radio Act  had nearly 100 sponsors in Congress, but it has since been pushed lower on their agenda. In Congress' next session, with support from a new administration, we need to bring it back up, keeping the pressure on our congresspersons, and telling them that urban communities, musicians and youth need community radio now! And when the FCC does open the window for licensing applications, organize, apply and start your own LPFM station.
Larisa Mann writes about technology, media and law for WireTap, studies Jurisprudence and Social Policy at U.C. Berkeley and djs under the name Ripley. She is a resident DJ at Surya Dub , San Francisco, and collaborates with the Riddim Method blog-DJ-academic crew, Havocsound sound system, and various other cross-fertilizing organisms in the Bay Area and worldwide.