Activists Pave Way for Thousands of New Community Radio Stations

Media reform activists recently won several crucial victories in the battle to free the nation's radio channels from corporate control and, thanks to their efforts, grassroots groups across the country will soon have a chance to run thousands of low-power and community radio stations.

Last week, a federal court in Philadelphia threw out a 2008 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule that allowed one media company to own a newspaper and broadcast outlets in the same city. The ruling is the latest victory for groups challenging the FCCs attempts to deregulate media ownership and activists say the decision is a blow to big media conglomerates and a victory for the community media movement.

The Third District Court of Appeals sent the cross-ownership rule back to the FCC for reconsideration because the commission did not allow sufficient time for the public to comment on the rule. The court also agreed with the plaintiffs, a coalition of public interest groups, that the FCC failed to consider the impacts its rules have on women and people of color.

Brandy Doyle, policy director for plaintiff group The Prometheus Project, told Truthout that the historic ruling stems the tide of media consolidation by big companies. The ruling is just one of several victories recently won by the Prometheus Project and its allies, which have been challenging the FCC's efforts to deregulate media ownership, especially under the Bush administration, for more than a decade.

On July 12, the FCC announced new rules for broadcast applications that represent the commission's first step toward implementing the Local Community Radio Act, which President Obama signed into law on January 4. Doyle said the historic law would result in thousands of new community radio stations, especially in urban areas.

“The Local Community Radio Act mandates that the FCC expands community radio and ensures that channels are available,” Doyle said. “In the third circuit, we've been fighting for community radio for a long time, more than ten years, but in the meantime these media moguls have been getting bigger and bigger and taking up more space in the market, taking away channels from independent media.”

The new rules proposed by the FCC set guidelines for dealing with a backlog of 6,500 applications for FM translators, which bounce radio signals from beyond the reach of main stations. The backlog dates back to 2003, when 12,000 applications were filed in a single action, many of them by big media companies. A Prometheus Project petition prompted the FCC to freeze the applications until the passage of the Local Community Radio Act set standards ensuring low-power and community radio applicants will get a fair share of access to FM translators.

FCC officials say their new rules are based on community needs.

“Today, we start the countdown on the return of local voices to the radio waves, as low power radio stations will finally be given space to broadcast in large urban markets,” said FCC Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn. “Already we see amazing rural stations run by farm workers, schools and churches in rural Florida, Oregon and the Carolinas and we've heard of interest from the Chicago public school system, from workers in Baltimore and from music groups in San Antonio.”

The FCC commissioners seem to have changed their tune since the Bush years. Commissioner Michael Copps, for example, applauded the court ruling that struck down the cross-ownership rule. Copps called the decision “a huge victory for the millions of Americans who have gone on record demanding a richer and more diverse media.”

Doyle said there is a broad grassroots movement that, over the years, inspired thousands to attend demonstrations and public hearings to demand that the public and community groups have more access to the airwaves.

Copps also agreed with the court that the FCC has ignored the needs of women and minorities.

“The third circuit has brought into clear focus the shortfalls of two previous FCCs on media ownership and their lackluster performances in encouraging more minority and female ownership of our broadcast outlets,” Copps said.

Doyle said women and people of color were excluded from the media system before the days of consolidation. During the early days of radio, the FCC handed out channels for free and only to white men. Now, broadcasters have to buy their way into the market, and with consistent deregulation since the 1970s, radio has fallen under control of those with the deepest pockets.

“A number of studies have shown that women and people of color are regularly denied the capital they need to participate in that market,” Doyle said.

With more radio channels reserved for community use, a plethora of organizations ranging from unions and civil rights groups to local governments and community groups will soon have greater access to radio broadcasting, but Doyle said the next challenge for the community media movement is buildings its own broadcast infrastructure. In other words, it's time for people to get their hands dirty and start planning to open new radio stations.

The FCC could start taking applications for low-power community radio stations by next summer and Doyle said group that want to get on the air should start working now. The Prometheus Project has launched the Radio Summer program to help spread the word. The program is an opportunity for media reform activists to inform communities about the new low-power FM radio opportunities. Participants can host events, run workshops and distribute information about starting new radio stations in local areas.