Community Radio Powers Up

A long-fought-for bill will add diversity to the dial and win back broadcast access for communities.
Radio photo by Three Sixteen

Photo by Three Sixteen.

Choice on American radio dials has shrunk in recent years. A handful of companies have bought out or consolidated stations, pushing local programming off the airwaves. But this January, activists and media groups worked with politicians on both ends of the political spectrum to pass the Local Community Radio Act, which gives broadcast access back to communities.

The bill frees up more of the dial by allowing low-power stations to operate on every third frequency rather than every fourth, which was formerly the rule. The change will allow the Federal Communications Commission to issue hundreds or even thousands of new low-power radio permits. The stations are allowed up to 100-watt signals, which reach 10 to 15 miles.

Grassroots organizers, including faith groups and media democracy and social justice activists, worked for more than 10 years on this bill, after the Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000 restricted the number of frequencies open to low-power stations. Larger stations raised objections on the grounds of signal interference, although a 100-watt station can’t overpower a 10,000-watt station. A congressionally mandated study in 2003 found the complaints of interference were baseless.

Low-power stations meet specific community needs all over the country. In Woodburn, Ore., the local farmworker’s union station, KPCN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste) broadcasts to thousands in Spanish and indigenous dialects. In New Orleans, KOCZ keeps traditional zydeco accordion music on the air.

It doesn’t take much to add diversity to the dial. Media think tank Free Press found that the average radio market has 16 white-male-owned stations for every female-owned one and every two minority-owned stations. Because the Community Radio Act was passed to combat radio conglomeration, only noncommercial entities like ­nonprofits, religious organizations, and public institutions can qualify for permits.