Community-driven radio has always played a significant role in winning the hearts and minds of people in movements for social change, economic justice and human rights. But the history of dramatic media consolidation in this country has made it extraordinarily difficult for all but an elite few to control their own media.
Today, after years of activism, a new law on low-power FM (LPFM) radio is paving the way for the greatest expansion of FM radio in decades. This is a huge victory for media justice: Communities across the U.S. now have the power to transform the media landscape and fight corporate media owned and controlled by the 1 Percent. It’s an unprecedented opportunity for historically marginalized communities of color, immigrant and low-income folks to own and operate their own means of media production and infrastructure—through their own LPFM radio station.
During the civil rights movement, radio provided a crucial platform for African-American leaders to disseminate information and to educate and organize others to join the struggle. During the 1950s, television overtook radio as the most lucrative entertainment medium, leading to the abandonment of radio stations. Local radio station owners found themselves with more autonomy to experiment with local programming. Suddenly, African-Americans with some financial means were able to own and operate their own mass media.
In Atlanta in 1949, African-American banker Jesse Blayton used his entire savings of $50,000 to buy a 1,000-watt station, WERD, from a white owner. His programming featured black voices and R&B, and addressed issues of the day like the racist Jim Crow laws and the civil rights fight. Blayton hired the head of the Georgia state NAACP chapter to produce a news series.
The WERD station was housed one floor above the main offices of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leader-ship Committee. Station DJ Jack Gibson described the close relationship between the station and SCLC (News for All the People, 2011):
If Dr. King wanted to make an announcement, he’d take a broomstick and hit on the ceiling.... If I was on the air, I’d say: “We interrupt this program for another message from the president of the SCLC, Martin Luther King Jr. And now here is Dr. King!”
African-American radio DJs became an important political and cultural voice in the community, highlighting racial and economic justice issues that people face, like unemployment, segregation and voter rights. One of those important DJs was Philadelphia-based Georgie Woods, who joined the NAACP and used “Freedom Shows” on radio station WHAT to mobilize thousands of African-Americans to demand city construction jobs in the 1960s. He even featured programming in different languages.
Of course, the overwhelming majority of media outlets in the 1950s and ’60s were still owned by the corporate establishment with profit-driven motives, but stations like WERD and WHAT demonstrated the power of radio as a crucial mass medium to galvanize and educate grassroots communities to action.
A few decades later, we can see our media ownership landscape has changed dramatically. Back in 1983, roughly 50 corporations controlled a majority of U.S. media. By 1993, that number had dropped to 20 (Extra!, 10/11).
These corporations control most of what we watch, hear and read every day. They increasingly control not only media content, but the infrastructure and pipeline of information as well.
And they spend millions in lobbying dollars to sway Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to support media policies that would increase media consolidation. The 1996 Telecommunications Act removed nearly all caps on radio ownership, making radio the most consolidated media sector in the country (Extra!, 10/11).
In December 2012, the FCC was considering further relaxing media owner-ship rules, allowing for fewer corporations to own even more media outlets. It backed off after public opposition (BillMoyers .com, 12/7/12), but media justice and public interest advocates know that the long battle against corporate media greed is not over.
Media consolidation and unfair restrictions on community radio have narrowed already limited access to the airwaves for women and communities of color. Women constitute over 51 percent of the U.S. population but own less than 7 percent of all TV and radio station licenses. People of color make up over 36 percent of the U.S. population, but own just over 7 percent of radio licenses and 3 percent of TV licenses (FCC, 11/14/12). These disappointing numbers only further prove that while we shouldn’t give up on diversifying media ownership, we can’t rely on corporate media to cover our stories.
We need to pursue alternatives that allow us to create and distribute our own media content on our own terms. This is what makes the Local Community Radio Act, passed by Congress in December 2010, so significant. Prometheus Radio Project, a grassroots radio non-profit group that builds, supports and advocates for community radio stations, joined with other community leaders in a 10-year campaign to pass this legislation, marking the largest expansion of community radio in U.S. history.
Much like the national movement in the 1970s for public access television, which allowed thousands of local communities to create and broadcast their own programs, the Local Community Radio Act will make it possible for hundreds of communities in rural and urban neighborhoods to start their own low power FM radio stations.
Noncommercial LPFM stations operate at a much lower capacity than typical radio stations, broadcasting at 100 watts of power or less, giving them a reach of about three to 10 miles. The FCC established the LPFM service in 2000 in an effort to diversify the voices and content of a heavily consolidated radio environment. In theory, LPFM stations would be run by local organizations (e.g., schools, churches, non-profits) and act as a platform for their community. LPFM radio stations are uniquely situated to deliver content to micro communities, addressing hyperlocal issues that often go unaddressed by media outlets targeting larger audiences.
Unfortunately, the largest commercial radio stations quickly responded by using their influence in Congress to pass the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act in December 2000, severely restricting the number of frequencies on the dial for LPFM stations. Commercial radio stations (which broadcast from 6,000 to 100,000 watts) argued that LPFM stations would interfere with their signals, a claim that was later discredited by a third-party study commissioned by Congress (FCC, 2/19/04).
Fast-forward 10 years; in December 2010, after the persistent efforts of groups like the Prometheus Radio Project, Congress’s approval of the Local Com-munity Radio Act in effect reverses the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act, leading to this generation’s single greatest expansion of the FM dial in both rural and urban communities. That law was put into practice in November 2012, when FCC rules laid out how the application process would work and set October 2013 as the window for applications.
Brandy Doyle, policy director at Prometheus Radio Project, marked the significance of this moment in the group’s press release (11/30/12):
Finally, communities without a voice on the airwaves will have a chance to control their own local media. Thanks to the significant step forward today, we will see a wave of new radio stations that better reflects the diversity of our country.
But it almost didn't happen. Due to an overwhelming number of applications by major stations to spread their existing content to larger areas, there wasn't much space left. The FCC almost moved forward with a plan that would have given 98% of the available channels in the top 150 urban markets to these existing stations . But engineering studies from Todd Urick at Common Frequency, Michi Eyre at REC Net and Prometheus Radio Project's lobbying efforts saved the day. The FCC adjusted their plan and protected LPFM in top markets where the airwaves have been largely closed to community groups who wanted to start a station.
One inspiring LPFM community radio success story is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Radio Conciencia, a robust worker-run radio station in Immokalee, Florida. The CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Maya Indian and Haitian immigrants, working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida.
They started Radio Conciencia, WCIW- LP (107.9 FM), back in 2003, a 100-watt station that features their members’ organizing campaigns, local issues, music, cultural and educational programming in several languages, including indigenous dialects. The vast majority of their low-income members lack access to the Internet, and rely on this radio station to get their entertainment, news and local information.
Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, an organizer with CIW and Radio Conciencia, reflected on the significance of the station back at a 2007 FCC Hearing on Media Ownership (4/30/07):
While most workers have little access to the Internet, newspapers or television, Radio Conciencia gives Immokalee a voice and provides our community with the information it needs. When Hurricane Wilma hit Immokalee in 2005, we realized the deep value of Radio Conciencia. All local radio stations were transmitting alerts on the impending hurricane, but Radio Conciencia was the only radio that was transmitting information on where to go and what to do in Spanish and in the indigenous languages spoken in our community.
I’d especially like to see LPFM stations in communities to the north, where migrant workers go when the season in Immokalee is over and where farmworkers are more isolated and have even less access to information, communities where workers face severe violations of their human rights, including continuing existence of human trafficking and modern-day slavery.
It’s a sobering reminder that the digital divide is a still an enormous problem that is very much an economic and racial justice issue. Thirty percent of the overall U.S. population and 40 percent of rural America still lack access to the Internet (New York Times, 2/17/11). While we must continue to organize and work to close the digital divide, we also need to ensure that our communities stay connected and informed.
We need to challenge the false choice between “old” media—like radio, television and print—and “new” media like the Internet and mobile devices. Both matter, and both play a critical role in maintaining a healthy and vibrant communications infrastructure.
The expansion of LPFM radio stations provides a unique and low-cost opportunity for communities most directly affected by poverty, racism and social injustice to collectively run a media outlet, broadcast community-driven content and have a direct say over programming to meet their own local needs. It’s a great victory for media justice and for community empowerment.
Seize the Opportunity:
Starting Your Own LPFM Station
Groups eligible to apply for a Low Power FM license include local non-profit organizations, schools and government agencies. The organization applying must have a board of directors and must be a local organization.
The first step in applying is finding out if a channel is available in your area. In some larger cities, there may only be one or two channels available, making collaboration an important part of the application process. Prometheus Radio Project set up RadioSpark.org, a website where prospective applicants can join to connect with other applicants, share resources and ask questions. The site also has a free tool called Rfree, which lets applicants search for available channels in their area.
Betty Yu is the membership organizer at the Center for Media Justice (CMJ) and sits on the boards of Third World Newsreel and Deep Dish TV. Steven Renderos is the national organizer at CMJ, a local DJ in New York and former radio host at KFAI Radio in Minneapolis. CMJ’s Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net), a local-to-local network of grassroots social justice organizations, is helping to spread the word about the LPFM opportunity.