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Community Radio Poised for a Big Comeback as Activists Free the Airwaves

(Photo: MikeWebkist)

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For several years, Luis Avila produced an acclaimed youth radio show in the Phoenix, Arizona, area that tackled everything from Latino-American culture to immigration reform, teen pregnancy and the fight to ensure undocumented students can receive college scholarships. Avila’s show, “El Break,” went off the air three years ago after the station that hosted Avila and his friends as guests ran out of money and was sold. After unsuccessfully looking for another host station, Avila and a coalition of immigrant rights groups decided to work toward launching their own community radio station to put “El Break” back on the air and provide more programs to serve their community, but federal regulators have not approved any lower-power FM radio stations – the non-commercial kind used exclusively by nonprofit groups and governments to serve a local area – in more than a ten years. But that’s all about to change.

After a decade-long grassroots campaign waged by community radio advocates, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is preparing to make room on the airwaves for hundreds of new low-power stations across the country. Avila said the opportunity comes at a crucial time. His community has suffered while living under the watch of rogue Sheriff Joe Arpaio and dealing with the harsh realities of tough anti-immigrant laws recently passed in Arizona.

“We have seen more and more harassment and intimidation of all Spanish-speaking families, not only of undocumented families, so we saw a need of doing more outreach to communities,” Avila told reporters in a recent press conference.

Sheriff Arpaio is currently grappling with the Obama administration after a three-year Department of Justice investigation determined in December that his department engaged in “unconstitutional policing” and unfairly targeted Latinos in the Phoenix area. Avila said many of cases of police harassment are made known by individuals stepping forward to tell their personal stories, and community radio stations provide a perfect forum for people who need to share their experiences and information on personal and civil rights. Community radio can also help immigrant families share information about access to crucial services such as health care, Avila said.

Carlos Garcia, an organizer with Puente Arizona, one of the groups in Avila’s coalition, said community radio would give a voice to those who rarely get to represent themselves in the local media.

“Anti-immigrant voices dominate the airwaves,” Garcia said. “Community radio can help us tell our own stories, share news and information, and get organized.”

Puente Arizona and “El Break” have been working with the advocacy group The Prometheus Radio Project to make such a community radio station a reality. The Prometheus Project had led the fight in Washington and across the country to free up airspace for low-power, community radio stations for the past 12 years and also provides resources to communities that want to get on the air.

Prometheus Project Policy Adviser Brandy Doyle said community radio is important to all kinds of communities, not just immigrant communities like Avila’s. Schools can use them to broadcast sports games and education programming. Local governments can broadcast weather and traffic reports. Community radio, Doyle said, gives a voice to those ignored by the broader media and provides the kind of local news coverage that major and Internet outlets do not. People of color own fewer than 7 percent of radio stations, Doyle said, even though people of color make up more than 33 percent of the population.

“In an increasingly diverse country, our media system is anything but,” Doyle said.

The FCC has not licensed any new low-power stations since 2000, when big media companies pushed legislation through Congress that had the effect of severely limiting the number of low-power FM stations that could be introduced in large markets. The legislation demanded that new low-power stations broadcast at least four clicks on the dial away from existing stations in the same area, so a station wishing to broadcast at 94.5 FM, for instance, would not be able to if stations were already broadcasting anywhere between 93.9 FM and 95.1 FM. This rule made it impossible to find space on the airwaves for new community radio stations, especially in saturated urban markets where many members of minority communities live and work.

The Prometheus Radio Project built a nationwide grassroots coalition to push Congress to act. After years of diligently working with lawmakers and regulators, Congress passed the bipartisan Local Community Radio Act in 2010, which repealed the 2000 legislation restricting new low-power stations. President Obama signed the act into law in early 2011, marking a big victory for The Prometheus Radio Project and community media advocates everywhere, but more work still needs to be done. The FCC is in the process of writing new rules to implement the law, and Doyle and Prometheus are currently campaigning to ensure the FCC’s rules allow for the highest number of new low-power stations possible.

The community radio act allows low-power stations to be at least three clicks away on the dial from other stations instead of four, and the FCC can grant waivers allowing the stations to be at least two clicks away. The FCC is currently considering whether or not it will issue these waivers. If the waivers are made available, the number of community radio stations that could be launched would double or triple in many cities. Comments on the proposed FCC rule on waivers are due May 7.

Doyle expects the FCC to finish its rulemaking in the coming months and open a window for low-power FM license applications in late 2012 or early 2013. Groups that wish to launch community stations should start raising money and preparing to apply as soon as possible, she said.

The application processed is designed to be much simpler and less expensive than commercial applications. Only a nonprofit group can operate a low-power FM station, and launching a new station costs as little as $10,000. Doyle and the Prometheus Radio Project are working with groups like “El Break” to help them organize the resources they need to apply for licenses and launch new stations.

“Prometheus really championed … the opportunity for us to apply for low power licenses, so we can do the services and continue the conversation on immigration in Arizona,” said Avila, who hopes his coalition can broaden the conversation in their community by creating a forum for people to speak their minds. “So we’re really excited about the opportunity to apply for a licenses … rather than be a megaphone for immigrant issues, we can actually be a recipient of comments and questions so we can serve our community better.”

To see if low-power FM frequencies for community radio will be available in your area, go to

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