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What Could Congress Do That's Wildly Popular, Bi-partisan & Costs Nothing? Make More Local Radio!

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I'm posting an essay I solicited from Danielle Chynoweth of Prometheus Radio, regarding the upcoming vote on Low Power FM radio, known as LPFM, which is increasingly relevant as we find ourselves analyzing in greater detail the relationship (or lack thereof) between vox pops, corporate interests, corporate media, Congressional efficacy and, well, the fate of our nation.

I'll note herein that while I'm glad LPFM will grow if this bill passes, I think the greater reality is that we are over-regulating and limiting what are essentially First Amendment issues. Additionally, citizens should be aggressively questioning the woefully passive (to put it mildly) governmental stewardship of publicly owned airwaves known as spectrum, which are leased far too cheaply by cell phone, radio, internet access and cable companies whom sell them back to us, while they fail to make access universally affordable and available.

I'm also concerned about what the late Dirk Koning of The Grand Rapids Community Media Center told me about how the growth of religion in citizens' media far outstrips potentially effective secular voices on American issues -- though I'll ceaselessly defend any religious groups' right to broadcast.

Finally, despite some of his better work, I'm also -- quite sadly, actually -- concerned about McCain and the FCC, when I consider his possible succumbing of sorts to the power of lobbyists, when drumbeats for war were being sounded by the PAX network two wars ago.

Herewith, Danielle Chynoweth, speaking on an important piece of The American Peoples' business.

What Could Congress Do That's Wildly Popular, Bi-partisan & Costs Nothing? Make More Local Radio!

by Danielle Chynoweth of the Prometheus Radio Projec
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There is a new sound on the radio. Listen past the endless drone of manufactured music and centralized news feeds, and you might already hear it. It started with the murmur of a few hundred community radio stations, broadcasting with the wattage of a light bulb via rooftop antennas. Now this sound is about to grow.

After nine years of nationwide grassroots organizing, Congress is finally ready to move on the Local Community Radio Act, which will greatly expand the number of low power FM stations in the United States. This popular, bipartisan legislation is on the fast track to becoming law, with a vote before the full House just around the corner.

In response to massive media consolidation, radio advocates pressured the Federal Communications Commission to create the low power FM (LPFM) service in 2000. LPFMs are smaller stations that fit between larger ones on the dial. They are local, non-commercial, and inexpensive to build and operate, making them accessible to just about anyone.

Predictably, Clear Channel and other big broadcasters cried wolf about "signal interference." So Congress put the smackdown on low power radio, restricting LPFMs to rural areas and denying licenses to hundreds of applicants. It was then proven by a $2.2 million taxpayer funded study that low power stations create no significant interference to the signals of full power stations.

But it isn't signal interference the media moguls are really worried about. LPFMs are competition. They sit on valuable spectrum real estate that incumbent broadcasters could use to repeat their signals over ever-larger areas. And LPFMs put mainstream media to shame, reflecting and responding to the needs of their communities and highlighting local voices and local perspectives. So broadcasters threw their weight around Capitol Hill and managed to sink the Local Community Radio Act in two previous legislative sessions.

Re-introduced in 2009 by Reps. Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Lee Terry (R-NE) and Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and John McCain (R-AZ), the Local Community Radio Act is on the move. The bill recently sailed through the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Technology and the Internet, thanks to lead co-sponsor Rep. Doyle (D-PA), as well as committee chair Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), who added provisions to allay lingering fears of interference without compromising low power radio.

The bill has even gained the support of its former skeptics in Congress, including Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), a former broadcaster, and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL), who was a lead co-sponsor of the bill that originally restricted low power radio in 2000. Longtime LPFM supporter Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) helped pass the bill out of the Energy and Commerce Committee on October 15th with a unanimous voice vote.

Co-sponsor Rep. Anna Eschoo (D-CA) summed it up: "All I can say is, it's about time ... It was absurd and ridiculous that broadcasters went to such great lengths to block the public from having some small measure of access to the airwaves, and disgraceful that we had to spend more than two million dollars to prove what the FCC already had shown--that LPFM would not interfere with full power stations."

With hundreds more local, independent radio stations, imagine how much better prepared our country would be to discuss complex issues. We could broaden the dialogue past the corporate talk show echo chamber. Local musicians could sidestep industry gatekeepers to share emerging music. And local democracies would be revitalized by public awareness and debate over local issues.

A look at existing LPFM stations gives us a glimpse of what is possible. Run by community groups, schools, churches, and local governments, many LPFMs operate as community pillars. They broadcast local news and events and provide essential information during emergencies, as Bill Moyers made clear.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf, low power radio was the only source of emergency information in a number of counties. Residents in East Texas tuned battery-operated radios to KZQX while they waited a week for power to be restored. At 100 watts, KZQX easily ran on a small generator. Low Power radio brought information to Katrina evacuees in the Houston Astrodome. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers built Radio Consciencia a powerful tool in forcing McDonalds and Taco Bell to ensure better wages and safer working conditions. During hurricane season, Radio Consciencia broadcasts emergency alerts in Spanish and Mayan languages spoken by farm workers.

When it's not busy saving lives, local radio supports the survival of arts, culture, and even ecosystems. In Louisiana, KOCZ keeps the region's heritage of Zydeco music on the airwaves. Low power station KCUW run by the Umatilla Tribe in Oregon, offers live coverage of cultural events on the reservation. And low power WRYR covers the environmental impacts of development on the Chesapeake Bay.

If the Local Community Radio Act passes, urban neighborhoods will finally have access. Low power radio's 3-to-5 mile range could reach a significant number of listeners in dense urban areas. In North Central Chicago, the Chicago Independent Radio Project hopes to create the city's first independent music and arts station. In Minneapolis, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, one of the many groups denied a license in 2000, wants to connect the Hmong community through radio broadcast.

Those of you in the blogosphere who think broadcast is dead in the age of Internet, think again. Radio is still the most accessible medium out there--it does not require expensive equipment, literacy, or a broadband connection. And local radio can mesh with digital age technology in creative ways. For example, radio antennas are well positioned as neighborhood wi-fi hubs. Internet makes mobile radio studios possible. Web 2.0 spaces allow for collaborative radio production, overcoming constraints of time and space.

As local governments build new broadband networks, radio stations are natural candidates to grow into community media centers, where residents can learn to become media producers as well as informed consumers.

With so many success stories, more low power radio is a bipartisan no-brainer - it is wildly popular, non-controversial, and costs taxpayers nothing. It would provide communities an outlet for local voices and local talent. The only obstacle left is making the bill a priority during a busy Congressional session.

Take action on transforming our media. Contact your legislator to support the Local Community Radio Act: www.expandlpfm.org.

Danielle Chynoweth works with the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia based non-profit organization that builds, supports, and advocates for participatory radio as a tool for social justice organizing and community expression.