Some day soon, Congress may pass the Local Community Radio Act, a piece of legislation that will allow a couple thousand new low-power FM radio stations to go on the air.
new broadcasters would be much smaller than the stations that dominate
the market now, and by law, they'd be noncommercial. Low-power FM
(LPFM) transmitters operate at 100 watts or less (drawing about as much
power as an incandescent lightbulb), which means they reach only a few
miles and are truly local in scope. This means these stations have the
potential to occupy a very different niche from large-scale networked
broadcasting. Mom-and-pop LPFM stations range widely in terms of
programming. KAQU-LP in Sitka, Alaska, broadcasts whale sounds from an
underwater mic; various school districts and churches have LPFMs,
covering religious, municipal and highly local topics like school board
meetings; and other stations provide the sorts of arts and culture
programming that have been drowned out in the wave of homogenized
content brought about by consolidation of for-profit media companies.
of what is so interesting about media made by community members is its
potential to challenge what we think radio "is." Our present-day
understanding of radio has to a great degree crystallized around the
massive network configuration -- both commercial and noncommercial,
like National Public Radio. Yet LPFM shows that technology's contours
can shift over time based on ongoing renegotiation between players like
regulators, corporations, advocates and everyday citizens. Far from
being a moribund medium, radio can have an alternate future -- one that
actually reawakens long-forgotten debates that were "settled" shortly
after the dawn of broadcasting.
In fact, radio provides a
somewhat rare opportunity to think about technological change over
time, and in many ways the issues surrounding it now are not so
different from those present at the dawn of broadcasting in the 1920s.
Then as now, a large part of what defined the technology was decided
through heated contestation between groups with competing visions for
its use: Should radio stations be networked and strive to reach a wide
and dispersed audience? Should they be commercial and profitable, or
operate on a non-profit or community-subsidy model? Should they serve
the "public interest", whatever that is construed to be? Should certain
forms of content be privileged over others? Should radio be made by
professional elites or by neighbors and community members? And the
question that hovers above them all: Who gets to decide?
history (and future) of radio shows us that these contests don't
necessarily settle down once and for all. Though the commercial network
model was largely ascendant by the 1930s (and became much more
concentrated after The Telecommunications Act of 1996), advocates for other uses mounted challenges on many occasions, and succeeded in carving out some room for alternative models more
than once. Most recently, in 2000, the Federal Communications
Commission (FCC) started issuing licenses for "low-power FM" (LPFM)
radio stations; this represented a marked change, as no new low-watt
licenses had been issued since 1978. This shift in policy didn't come
out of nowhere, though. In fact, the FCC was responding to not only
pressure from advocates of "microradio" (as it was often called during
the 1990s), who publicized the issue through high profile pirate broadcasting and court cases, but the FCC's own observation of the effect of the 1996
Telecommunications Act, which left no doubt about the chilling effect
of corporate media consolidation on localism.
would we even want hyper-local FM stations? FM can still do a lot of
things, even some that other media technologies can't. It's easily
accessible to listeners, cheap and easy to program, and a great tool
for people to reach out to others in their neighborhoods or towns with
local, original content. It's resilient, too -- in moments of tragedy
and disaster like Hurricane Katrina, radio was a far more durable and
reliable communications infrastructure than networked computing, not
least because receivers and transmitters can run off batteries and
generators. Even an apparent disadvantage of radio -- the scarcity of
airtime -- can be a plus, in that it prompts groups to make thoughtful
decisions about how to use their stations.
Until now, LPFM
stations have been permitted only in rural and suburban areas where
already crowded airwaves didn't preclude them. As a result of intense
lobbying by the likes of Clear Channel and even National Public Radio
in 2000, LPFMs had to conform to conservative spacing requirements
(called third-adjacent channel spacing), which meant that in cities and
dense media markets, new stations couldn't go on the air. The new
legislation seeks to remedy this by opening up more space on the dial
by permitting a slightly less conservative metric to be used. The
result of this change will be more stations overall, including the
addition of some LPFMs to the airwaves in suburbs and many cities,
which means that different sorts of community groups and audiences will
have access too.
The LPFMs that have gone on the air since 2000
have flourished. Radio in rural areas can be unexpectedly powerful
partly because high-speed internet rollout has lagged there. Nearly
everyone has radio receivers, especially in their cars; car receivers
are in fact better and stronger than household sets and can pull in
weaker or more remote signals. But it's not just the "digital divide"
issue that gives radio staying power. Or rather, it's more complicated
than that. As mentioned above, FM radio got a boost after Katrina
because it was a reliable communications network, which distinguished
it; a good number of new LPFM stations have worked out special
arrangements with their local law enforcement to try to stay on the air
and give people local, current information in case of disasters and
emergencies (in contrast to a situation that unfolded in Minot, North Dakota in 1993).
A specific example of this is an LPFM station in a Florida farmworker
community, where physical dispersal as well as literacy and language
issues can present barriers to other means of communication. For many
farmworkers, English is a third and Spanish a second language after an
indigenous mother-tongue, so their local LPFM station was indispensable
as it provided workers with up-to-date information about sheltering
from Hurricane Wilma, as described in this worker's testimony before the FCC. Significantly, the radio station was not only giving out information;
as the testimony indicates, people could call the station with
information on the ground and with questions, in effect creating
dialogue between the station and its listeners that allowed rescue
workers to better respond to needs in the community.
decade has shown what people can do with LPFM in America's countryside.
The opportunity to build more stations in cities and suburbs will
permit a further reimagining of uses for LPFM in different, though
still highly local contexts. One feature that is likely to carry over,
however, is the use of the stations for intra-community dialogues and
exchanges of information. Another is the voices on the air being your
neighbors, who could be spinning Bhangra or bluegrass, holding
interfaith discussions, giving out traffic reports or information about
community health initiatives, and everything in between. Curiously
enough, some features that are touted as being integral to new
media--like the collapsing boundary between producers and
audiences--can also be found in this use of radio.
Why hasn't the Local Community Radio Act passed yet? One main reason is Congressional dysfunction ;
nobody in Congress truly opposes its passage, and President Obama has
indicated he will sign it into law. But it's also on the top of no
one's agenda. No one wins elections based on their support for
low-power FM radio.