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Community Radio Movement Prepares for Liftoff
(Photo: fras1977 / Flickr)

Community Radio Movement Prepares for Liftoff

(Photo: fras1977 / Flickr)

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Rahwa Habte wants to start a community radio station in near Seattle. Habte is an activist working for OneAmerica, a group that formed after 9/11 in response to hate crimes and discrimination against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians, and now advocates for immigrant and civil rights across the state of Washington. Habte and OneAmerica know that a radio station would give immigrants and refugees something commercial radio can’t – the ability to strengthen their communities by having their own voices on the airwaves. But until this year, launching a community-run radio station in an urban area would have been nearly impossible to do without breaking the law.

Habte and OneAmerica plan to start a low-power FM radio station in SeaTac, a suburb of Seattle that is home to the city’s airport as well as large populations of immigrants and refugees from around the world. Habte says the area is extremely diverse and many languages are spoken.

“Kind of like my own parents, [for] a lot of people, English is their second language. If folks know English at all, it’s very limited,” Habte says of the communities in SeaTac. “Like my own parents, a lot of folks don’t always receive traditional education in English or their own language.”

Habte says that some members of immigrant and refugee communities don’t have access to the Internet, and publishing fliers and bulletins is not effective when some folks can’t read. Disseminating information about cultural events and social services, for example, can be a challenge for activists and community organizers, but Habte says that radio is the solution.

“Radio is a really easy access point for people to get information, and a lot of people are familiar with that technology,” Habte says.

Now, for the first time in 13 years, OneAmerica and hundreds of other community groups across the country have the chance to start broadcasting from the bottom up.

On October 15, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be taking applications for noncommercial, low-power FM radio stations in cities across the country.

For groups like One America, it’s a one-time chance to get a spot on the dial and launch a radio station to serve local communities. For grass-roots radio activists, the FCC’s licensing opportunity is the fruit of a decadelong struggle and the biggest chance in a generation for workers, women, people of color, LGBTQ communities, immigrants and progressives to own a chunk of the airwaves in a nation where corporate media rules the broadcasting landscape.

During the 1990s, grass-roots and community voices were pushed off the air by media consolidation. Under pressure from media reformers, the FCC launched low-power FM service for noncommercial use in 2000. Big media conglomerates turned to Congress and complained that small, low-power stations might interfere with their broadcast signals. Congress then passed legislation placing severe restrictions on low-power broadcasting that made it nearly impossible to launch a community radio station in urban areas, where many minority communities live and work. For years, radio remained in the hands of the few who had the money to buy up the airwaves and influence politicians.

“The reality is that with so few companies owning so many stations in such a consolidated media market, people really haven’t had any alternatives to what these few networks are offering,” says Brandy Doyle, an organizer with the Prometheus Radio Project. “So today, we’re interested in talking about the other kind of radio, how the base can be shaped and how communities can be strengthened from the bottom up, not the top down.”

Truthout has followed the Prometheus Project since 2011, when the group and its allies won several crucial victories in the battle to free the nation’s airwaves from corporate control after a decadelong campaign.

The group worked with several members of Congress to pass the Local Community Radio Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in January 2011. The legislation put the FCC to the task of making space on the FM dial for community radio, reversing Congress’ previous moves in favor of the big media conglomerates.

Prometheus also helps nonprofits and community groups set up their radio stations, and Doyle says that about 6,000 people have contacted the group for information on applying with the FCC to set up a station. She expects the number of low-power, community-run radio stations in big cities to double or triple after the FCC takes applications in October.

“The breath and diversity of these groups is really amazing, and it shows the great potential for radio to be something more than just a megaphone for a few individual talk-show hosts,” Doyle says.

Habte says that OneAmerica already has the capacity to broadcast radio programs in English, Somali and Spanish, and the community radio station they want to bring to SeaTac would host news, arts and cultural programming for refugees and immigrants in the area. Training and education programs would help members of the community learn the ropes of radio and provide the kind of programming that the corporate media does not.

What would community radio look like in your neighborhood? Schools can use non-commercial stations to broadcast sports games and education programming. Local governments can broadcast weather and traffic reports. Labor unions and civil rights groups can use radio stations to share information and organize in local areas. Community radio gives a voice to those ignored by the broader media and provides the kind of local news coverage that major outlets and Internet stations do not. People of color, for example, own fewer than 7 percent of radio stations, even though people of color make up more than 33 percent of the population.

The historic opportunity to apply for space on the FM dial is approaching fast, and Doyle says that groups interested in building community radio stations need to act now. Once the FCC application window is closed, there may not be another chance to apply for a low-power FM license for years. Community groups do not need to be prepared to establish their station right away, but there is some fundraising and paperwork that needs to be done before October to receive FCC approval. For more information on starting a low-power FM station in your community, check out the resources on the Prometheus Radio Project’s website.

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