A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision issued Monday (PDF) will clear the runway for hundreds of new community radio stations that broadcast on low-power FM signals, bringing progressive, community voices to urban areas that have for decades only known what’s being broadcast by major corporations and America’s political right.
The FCC’s decision on Monday wipes away a massive backlog of applications for FM repeater stations, which are transmitters that repeat signals broadcast by corporate and religious radio operators — many of which rake in big listening audiences for right-wing syndicated talk shows.
“So, what a lot of right-wing, conservative radio stations have been able to do is expand their reach out in communities by just having these translators out in the wild, which is why Rush Limbaugh gets the type of audience that he has — because the networks take one signal and repeat it over and over and over across the dial all over the country,” Steven Renderos, national organizer with the Center for Media Justice, told Raw Story on Tuesday. “They’re constantly looking for opportunities to expand that, so there were a slew of these applications pending at the FCC.”
And that’s been the case ever since the FCC’s radio spectrum auction in 2003, which has led many activists to fear they would be forever choked out and kept away from the public airwaves. But after a long battle, activists with the Prometheus Radio Project have finally won.
“Now these right-wing radio networks won’t keep getting their translator applications approved,” Renderos added. “That will severely limit their ability to expand.”
The FCC’s decision also set clear criteria for community radio stations in heavily populated urban areas, which are otherwise bombarded by the endless droning of commercial media full of snide opinion masquerading as news.
“These [new, low power] stations can only be licensed to non-profit organizations, and you can only have one per customer,” Brandy Doyle, policy director for the Prometheus Radio Project, told Raw Story. “That way we won’t have these big corporate chains and media networks that are taking over the rest of the media landscape moving in on low power FM service. These stations have to be local, and they have to be independent. This clears the way for a real transformation of the FM dial.”
Instead of slowly grinding down thousands of repeater station applications that leave no room for community radio, the FCC essentially threw most of those applications away by limiting who can apply, how many filings a single entity can make, and which markets can consider new repeaters — all of which frees up the regulatory body to examine applications for new community stations. The regulatory agency still gave some deference to corporate broadcasters, however, by allowing them one shot at revising their applications to fit the new guidelines.
That means “as early as this fall, as in 2012, there will be opportunities for local community groups to plan and start their own independent radio stations,” Doyle said. “This is what we’ve fought for [over] more than a decade, and the FCC has opened the door to that.”
While there aren’t any official numbers yet, several “radio geeks” who spoke to Raw Story off the record estimated that as many as 10,000 applications for community radio stations could be filed in the coming years.
Prometheus activists and local radio affiliates all over the country played a dramatic role in helping shape media coverage of the “Occupy” movement last year, providing a sharp contrast to the often detached approach taken by mainstream, corporate sources. Their influence was broad enough to remind many listeners that community radio — an otherwise rare commodity in the U.S. — is often the dissenter’s best friend.
Though the FCC’s decision may not sound all that important, it really is. For the first time in decades, Americans living in major cities will soon be hearing the voices of their friends and neighbors flooding the airwaves — a far cry from the typical morning DJ fart jokes and the same “top hit” songs endlessly droning on a looping playback.
“Right now the Center for Media Justice is part of a national partnership with Prometheus Radio Project and Color of Change to try and identify organizations across the country — social and racial justice organizations — that could potentially benefit from owning and running their own radio station,” Renderos said. “What we hope to see in 5-10 years is a coordinated infrastructure of radio that doesn’t necessarily parallel what’s on the right, that at least helps to project a very different type of discourse on the radio dial.”
And it’s not just an outreach effort, either: The Center for Media Justice is actively taking inquiries from organizations that want access to their community’s airwaves, with the goal of helping them achieve that dream as soon as possible.
The FCC’s move Monday was the first step on a path laid out by the Local Community Radio Act, signed by President Barack Obama at the start of 2011, which represented the first real victory in activists’ long fight against the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) the radio industry’s biggest lobbying group. The bill freed up portions of the radio spectrum that had otherwise been kept empty by the larger broadcasters, who had long insisted upon four clicks of blank space on the FM dial to prevent interference. It also stipulated that new space on the dial must be reserved for community stations in urban areas where there might otherwise be none.
“There’s hardly news at all on commercial radio at this point, much less a diversity of viewpoints and a diversity of news.” Doyle concluded. “A lot of times corporate media doesn’t even cover things that are majority views, and there’s a disconnect between what we hear in the media and what we know most of our neighbors are thinking and feeling. This is a real opportunity for people to connect with each other and start building real alternatives.”
The National Association of Broadcasters did not respond to a request for comment.
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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