While the number of American radio stations is growing, ownership is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands due to increasing media consolidation. This means today’s radio often offers national playlists, syndicated programming and other piped-in content that threatens localism and the diversity of voices on the public airwaves.
When I was a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), we established low-power radio service in 2000 as a partial antidote to the negative effects of consolidation.
Low-power radio makes new licenses available for nonprofit community organizations, churches, schools and local governments. It informs people about what is going on in their neighborhood or town, features local musicians and unique programming that reflects the local culture, and breaks from the same homogenized content that have pushed radio listeners away.
When low-power radio was created, it was intended to reach across the whole country from rural areas to towns and cities, excluding only the most congested urban markets like New York and Los Angeles. These ambitions were halted when Congress placed unfair restrictions on the service due to existing broadcasters’ exaggerated charges of interference. Congress directed the FCC to commission a study to investigate these claims.
In 2003, the MITRE Corporation, a nonprofit engineering, consulting and tech research firm, concluded its report on low-power radio stations. It found, as the FCC had from the beginning, that this service would not cause harmful interference to existing radio stations. There are currently 800 existing low-power FM stations, but there is space for hundreds, potentially thousands more — if Congress acts to remove the unnecessary restrictions placed on this service.
There are wonderful examples of low-power stations in rural areas, playing an important part in bringing communities together. Clay, W.Va., is an Appalachian coal town just north of Charleston and is home to one of the only local radio stations in Clay County. WYAP-LP is run by a handful of dedicated volunteers and the programming ranges from bluegrass music to coverage of local sports games — and on Fridays, they only play West Virginia artists, giving a boost to many old-time musicians throughout the area.
Broadcasting out of Bay St. Louis, Miss., WQRZ-LP brought national attention to the life-saving potential of low-power radio when station manager Bryce Phillips waded through Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters with a battery pack strapped to his back in order to keep the station on-air and broadcasting important emergency information, even in the face of the deadly storm.
In the fields of southwest Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) — immigrant farm workers who pick tomatoes for the largest fast-food companies and suppliers in the country — have carved out their slice of the airwaves with Radio Conciencia. WCIW-LP carries programming in Spanish, Haitian Creole and a number of indigenous Mayan languages spoken by the workers, who are currently battling against sub-poverty wages and, in extreme cases, modern-day slavery in Florida’s tomato fields.
With the repeal of congressional restrictions on low-power stations, there could be more stations like WYAP, WQRZ or WCIW, not only in rural areas, but also in suburban and urban America.
Low-power radio promotes localism and diversity, not by limiting the rights of existing voices, but by adding new voices to the mix. Congress must enhance the statutory obligation to “encourage the larger and more effective use of radio in the public interest” by allowing this service to expand.
Members of Congress from both political parties have recently introduced a proposal to do just that. President Barack Obama’s past support of similar legislation, as well as his pledges to encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media and to promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, demonstrate his commitment to expanding low-power radio.
Moreover, expanding low-power radio is a popular demand of community and civil rights groups, churches, schools, immigrants and average citizens. When I served as an FCC commissioner, we received scores of calls and letters from people across the country who wanted to use the public airwaves to reach out to their communities, or who wanted to hear more diversity and local content that reflects their community. These people’s voices have been ignored for far too long. It’s time we hear them out. We can do so by expanding low-power radio.
Gloria Tristani is a former FCC commissioner.