This American Radio

Flickr/Brandon Christopher Warren

The American radio landscape is at the precipice of a major transformation.  This October, nonprofits across the country will apply to the FCC to start local, community radio stations because of a new law that opens up all unused FM frequencies for community, noncommercial access.  Expect over 1,000 new radio stations to go on air across the country in what will be the largest expansion of community radio in U.S. history.   Earlier this month the FCC released the application that nonprofit groups will fill out to apply for license to broadcast on the last remaining FM frequencies.

But wait, what century is this? And why should we care?  For those of us who turn up Pandora more than we adjust our FM dial, radio may seem like an archaic and dying hobby.  But it’s not.  In fact, radio continues to be one of the most penetrating mediums in the country, with about 93 percent of Americans listening to at least two hours of radio a week.

And community radio is a medium that’s increasingly relevant today: These stations can serve their localities in ways large, corporate broadcasters cannot – and the communities may need them more than ever. Community radio can be a beacon post-disaster or a channel to broadcast information to localities that are digitally underserved. FM radio is free and does not require a $50 a month Internet connection or digital literacy to take part. What’s more: Stations could offer an injection of local flavor that’s been lost in the past few decades of media consolidation.

The new stations will broadcast at 100 watts. That's about a 3-7 mile radius.  The FCC originally created the service in 2000, but at that time applicants were restricted to non-urban areas.  The new law expands the community radio service into larger cities where a station that covers a few miles can reach hundreds of thousands of listeners.

One community that could benefit from the influx of stations: Mexican-Americans. Christina Parker, communications director at the Border Network for Human Rights, a Texas organization that provides legal aid and documents human rights abuses at the Mexican-American border, reports they’re planning to apply for a radio license in the fall.  Parker says that the current media environment doesn’t serve their needs. “Our communities need to know what it means when a police officer enters a house without a police warrant and how to take action accordingly.”  Their station will broadcast that information.

Another audience for these stations, which have a local and quick response: disaster survivors. Take WQRZ, a low power broadcaster in Hancock, Mississippi that received its license with the original creation of the service back in 2000.  The station was able to stay on air to broadcast vital, local information in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Commercial broadcasters powered down, but WQRZ relocated to higher ground days before the storm. “We’re good at moving,” said station manager and engineer Brice Phillips. “We can operate in any circumstance — without any phone lines, Internet or wireless hookup.”  WQRZ told neighbors where to go for clean water, FEMA assistance, and reported on local damage.

Only nonprofit organizations are eligible to apply. And whichever groups do receive a license will certainly have their work cut out.  These stations are noncommercial and rely on underwriting from local businesses and volunteers.

The next wave of community radio represents a radical departure from the status quo. While corporations like Clear Channel own close to 900 radio stations across the country, market consolidation has made it cheaper for big media firms to create a single program and broadcast it nationally, reducing local jobs and local voices.

But it wasn’t always this way. The 1996 Telecommunications Act eliminated the caps on nationwide radio station ownership and allowed for a maximum of eight radio stations owned by a single company in a single market, a sharp increase from the maximum of four that was previously allotted.  That was the last major change in American radio: Within a few years Clear Channel went from owning fewer than 40 stations to close to 1,200 across the country. Newsrooms were cut, local music lost airtime, and stations began using voice-tracking software to save on labor costs and give the illusion of a live DJ.

The movement to bring low power community radio into American cities has its roots in 1990s pirate broadcasting. In response to the homogenization of the radio after the 1996 Telecommunications Act, hundreds of pirate stations sprouted across the country. In 1998 an FCC raid shut down a 20-watt pirate station in the vibrant community of West Philadelphia.  Residents had grown accustomed to their station with programming produced by and for the community, and when the FCC shut the station down the radio pirates had to make a decision: run from the law or fight to create a new one.  The activists decided on the later and founded Prometheus Radio Project to advocate for new community radio policy.

“It took a long time,” says Pete Tri Dish, founding member of the Prometheus Radio when asked about the 11-year grassroots campaign to pass the new law.  “If it’s from a corporation [a bill] can get passed in nine months, but if you’re not working with a lot of money that’s kind of what it takes.”  Pete Tri Dish is not his given name; it’s his DJ handle that he continues to use as a national advocate and engineer.

Now, 15 years after the FCC raid, community groups in cities across the country will have their chance to go on air. Prometheus Radio Project’s channel finder tool estimates that the Philadelphia area will have room for three new stations. A city like New Orleans could possibly see 12 new community-managed radio stations.

What will more than 1,000 new radio stations change in our increasingly digitized media environment? Only one thing is certain: Surfing the dial is about to get a whole lot less predictable.