|Suzanne Charlé |
|Volunteers install the station's radio tower.|
Opelousas, La.—At the headquarters of the Southern Development Foundation, a local nonprofit group, enthusiasm pulsed like the zydeco music filling the small white frame house. Inside, volunteer technicians worked their way through a maze of cables and electronics. Outside, engineers made final adjustments to broadcast antennae.
Tossing his cigarette onto the lawn, a building contractor named Andres Guidry scrambled onto the roof and up the new radio tower, the spurs jingling on his cowboy boots. On his signal, his partner and others tugged on the guide rope, and the antenna swung wildly up into the sky. Leaning from his precarious aerie, Guidry grabbed the flying piece of metal and wrestled it into place.
The three-day radio "barn raising" in the southwest Louisiana town of Opelousas, population 22,860, was off to a good start. Dozens of radio engineers, students, lawyers, musicians and activists had flown, driven and hitched rides from places as distant as Oregon and upstate New York to help the Southern Development Foundation build a low-power FM radio station—one of 511 noncommercial groups recently granted construction permits by the Federal Communications Commission.
|Suzanne Charlé |
|Volunteers prepare to launch a new low-power FM station in Opelousas, La.|
With 100 watts—the power of the average light bulb—these stations beam shows to their communities, typically within a radius of three to four miles. Their wattage is low compared with the commercial stations whose 50,000-watt signals can be heard for 100 miles, but they have a powerful ability to amplify voices seldom heard. In an era of increasing consolidation of media, LPFM stations—owned by churches, charities, environmental groups, schools and governmental agencies-are the Davids to corporate media Goliaths Clear Channel and Viacom.
The radio barn raising was organized by Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based group. Its technical director, Dylan Wrynn, who is better known as Pete Tridish, his on-air handle from his pirate radio days, welcomed the volunteers and S.D.F. staff. "We're all here to learn, and also to take the opportunity to make a little history," said Tridish. Over the weekend, there would be workshops on topics ranging from radio production to funding techniques to new technologies—how to put a station together both physically and financially.
S.D.F., the first civil rights organization to own its own radio station, came to prominence in the early 1960's, when it launched cooperatives to help local farmers get fair prices. "We work with the poor and the marginalized, and we want to be sure their voices are heard," said Lena Charles, president of S.D.F.
Among other things, S.D.F. plans to use the station to promote zydeco, the traditional black creole music that was born in Opelousas and St. Landry Parish. Twenty-one years ago, S.D.F. launched the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Music Festival. At that time only a few bands were still playing zydeco, said Mona Kennerson, S.D.F.'s development director and news producer of the new station. Now, there are more than 150 zydeco bands in the region, and the annual festival attracts some 20,000 people.
John Freeman, a retired Bell South executive and chief operating officer and station manager of S.D.F., ticks off the new radio station's schedule: Sunday morning gospel, perhaps broadcast live from the Holy Ghost Church across the road; weekday mornings that start with jazz or rhythm and blues; "Town Talk," which focuses on community issues, followed by hard-core zydeco from around the area.
This type of music is an endangered species on commercial radio stations, according to Michael Bracey of the Future of Music Coalition. Drive across the United States, he says, and you'll hear pretty much the same tunes for 3,000 miles. Important elements of American culture—zydeco, jazz, the blues—are all hard to find on the commercial airwaves, and classical music and opera have all but vanished. In large part, this reflects changes in the radio industry since the 1996 Telecommunications Act eliminated a cap on nationwide station ownership and increased the number of stations a corporation can own in a single market. In June, the F.C.C. voted to relax ownership rules even further. A 2002 report published by the Future of Music Coalition, Radio Deregulation: Has It Served Citizens and Musicians?, states: "This legislation sparked an unprecedented period of ownership consolidation in the industry with significant and adverse effects on musicians and citizens."
Today, nearly 219 million Americans—96 percent of those 12 and over—tune into 13,012 radio stations for news, sports, weather, traffic, music and talk. According to Robert McChesney, a media scholar, radio before 1996 was among the least concentrated and most economically competitive media. In 1990 no company owned more than 14 of the 10,000 stations, with no more than two in a single local market.
Today, two corporations, Clear Channel and Viacom, claim 42 percent of listeners and 45 percent of industry revenues. Since the passage of the 1996 act, Clear Channel has grown from 40 stations to 1,240 stations, 30 times more than Congressional regulation previously allowed.
McChesney says that for a democracy to be effective, "you need some sort of media system that's going to do two things. First of all, it's going to ruthlessly account for the activities of people in power and people who want to be in power so you know what they're actually doing. Secondly, it's going to give a wide range of opinions on the fundamental social and political issues that citizens need to know about." The U.S. media, he says, fail to meet that obligation.
Proponents of low-power FM argue that these tiny stations can contribute mightily to strengthening democracy. LPFM stations and Internet broadcasting (in which programs are streamed over the Internet) can offer local programming, a type of community-based narrowcasting harking back to radio's early days in the 1920's, when, according to McChesney, fewer than 5 percent of U.S. radio stations were operated commercially.
|'Low-power FM enhances democracy on the dial: It fosters new opportunities for true community radio to flourish in an age marked by the increasing consolidation and homogenization of the industry and the marketplace of ideas.'|
The uniform landscape created by corporate broadcasting gave birth to a renewed interest in LPFM. At first, most of these stations were run by "pirates," broadcasters who beamed programs to their communities without obtaining licenses from the F.C.C. After the passage of the Federal Communications Act in 1996, hundreds of pirate stations sprang up across the nation. As fast as the F.C.C. closed the stations, more would spring up, Pete Tridish recalls. Thanks to the portability of low-power broadcasting equipment, curbing pirates was like trying to stop mushrooms from growing after spring rains.
William Kennard, chairman of the F.C.C. during the Clinton Administration, was determined to crack down on the pirates and launched a series of raids. In 1998 the pirates fought back in the courts and in the court of public opinion. They demonstrated in cities across the nation, winding up the campaign in the autumn in Washington, D.C. At a debate at the Freedom Forum, they persuasively argued the case for the public's right to the airwaves. Their voices were heard: Newspapers picked up the story, portraying the low-power radio D.J.s as Robin Hoods of the airwaves.
Kennard also heard them. The F.C.C. had essentially stopped licensing low-power radio stations in the 1970's in an effort to strengthen full-power radio stations' finances. The commissioner, who backed Equal Opportunity Rules requiring stations to account for their hiring practices, recognized the importance of diverse voices and minority ownership, which had decreased since 1996. With the help of the National Lawyers' Guild Center for Democratic Communications in San Francisco and the Media Access Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington, the low-power radio advocates persuaded the F.C.C. commissioner to open a public comment period regarding the possibility of granting new licenses.
LPFM supporters sprang into action. Tom Ness, co-publisher of Jam Rag magazine in Detroit, successfully organized bands to sign comments and then persuaded 45 cities to weigh in on the LPFM proposal. In Minneapolis, a group called Americans for Radio Diversity filed comments. Kennard and F.C.C. employees were impressed by the number of responses, more than 3,500, which were overwhelmingly in favor of the new local stations. In January 2000 the F.C.C. announced that it would again accept applications for low-power FM licenses. Kennard, who had been a D.J. in his school days, wrote about the possibilities in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post: "Low-power FM will allow schools, churches and other local organizations to use the public airwaves to make their voices heard. In short, low-power FM enhances democracy on the dial: It fosters new opportunities for true community radio to flourish in an age marked by the increasing consolidation and homogenization of the industry and the marketplace of ideas."
Within months, 3,200 groups applied, including the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent in Minneapolis; El Comite de los Pobres, a group of Latino workers and farmers in Fresno, Calif.; and a florists club in Newton, Ga. A loose coalition banded together to support the LPFM initiative. The United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church's General Board of Global Ministries helped guide applicants through the tangled licensing and implementation processes. Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project, prepared directions on how to apply for a station license as well as legal information on regulations that would increase access to the radio spectrum. Michael Brown, an engineer in Portland, wrote "Low-Power FM Equipment Guide." The Independent Media Center trained grass-roots organizations to gather and produce news. When representatives of Prometheus weren't out on the road drumming up interest, they were filing comments with the F.C.C.
Negative response was thunderous from existing broadcasters who, according to the F.C.C. rules, were not allowed to obtain new station licenses. In an official statement, Edward O. Fritts, president and C.E.O. of the National Association of Broadcasters, called LPFM a "boneheaded" initiative. Low-power stations, he claimed, threatened the transition to digital radio broadcasting by taking the digital space (which, it seems, the commercial broadcasters had expected to be theirs) and "will likely cause devastating interference to existing broadcasters."
In fact, the F.C.C. rules regarding the frequency space between neighboring channels already meant that there would be no channels available in crowded markets such as New York and Los Angeles. Moreover, F.C.C. engineers, after a formal study, had concluded that low-power stations could be introduced without creating interference with existing stations.
The N.A.B. was not satisfied and launched a campaign to woo Congress. It was eventually joined by National Public Radio, which argued that LPFM would disrupt efforts to extend the range of existing public stations, interfere with radio reading services for the blind and slow the advent of digital radio by taking up space NPR hoped to use.
In response, Congress voted in December 2000 to decrease the amount of space on the dial for low-power stations. As a result, the F.C.C. scaled back its rules and more than three-quarters of the proposed station licenses were revoked. For the most part, only applicants in rural areas could get a place on the spectrum. A Washington Post editorial called the anti-LPFM campaign a "low-power mugging."
Nevertheless, some 73 new LPFM stations are on the air today, and a total of 511 permits to build have been issued. About half of those have been given to churches and another block to government agencies.
Applicants in second-tier cities will have to wait until the results of the Congress-mandated study are released. If the study finds LPFM offers no interference, the landscape could totally change, says Nan Rubin, who has built two community stations and helped start another 50. If the original F.C.C. recommendations are approved, even areas just outside major cities might be sites for LPFM stations: "We're talking Westchester, Queens and Brooklyn," Rubin says.
In addition to running more radio barn raisings, Tridish and his colleagues at Prometheus are assembling a public database (http://www.cradlebase.org/) that can be used by applicants and LPFM stations to share information and, eventually, music. Kai Aiyetoro, director of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters's LPFM program, is helping stations draw up budgets and get better buys on equipment. Alan Corn, an attorney with the National Lawyers' Guild, is focusing on local issues, challenging groups that have illegally filed multiple applications. Advocates for LPFM are hoping that the stations now up and running will persuade the public and Congress that there should be more such stations, not fewer. WRYR 97.5, a station on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland run by South Arundel Citizens for Responsible Development, was the only station to gather all of the local candidates in the last election for a debate. It's also a place for the bay's watermen to tell stories of life on the water and for scientists and environmentalists to discuss the effects of development.
On the other side of the continent, KRBS 107.3 is celebrating its first anniversary in Oroville, Calif.—a gold-rush town now populated for the most part by retirees, people on public assistance, and the people who serve them. According to the city manager, KRBS 107.3 helps to pull the town together. On air each week is jazz, Native American affairs, Croatian polka, Hmong folk and Thai pop, news from Laos and a political show, "By the People, For the People." "We're up to 54 D.J.s now," says Marianne Knorzer, one of the founders.