Keeping Up With Community Radio

BY Megan Tady

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Broadcasters, don't get angry about new neighbors making you look bad—just do better.

Commercial broadcasters are less than thrilled that they’ll soon have new neighbors on the nation’s radio spectrum. They’re worried about keeping up with hundreds of new noncommercial Low Power FM (LPFM) stations that will soon launch.

Last month, after multiple failed attempts, Congress finally passed the Local Community Radio Act, freeing up the dial for new community radio stations (100 watts) with a three- to five-mile reach. (President Barack Obama signed the bill into law this month.) These new locally owned stations will be run by non-commercial and nonprofit groups, including schools, churches, civil rights and social justice organizations, and emergency responders. The new law is particularly helpful for urban areas, because it repealed past restrictions that kept LPFM stations out of cities.

The fight for community radio spanned a decade, as big radio broadcasters tried to block the bill, claiming–despite numerous studies saying otherwise–that LPFM radio stations will cause interference with their signals.

Now that the bill has passed, it looks like there were bigger reasons why the broadcast industry fought so hard against expansion: LPFM stations could be serious competition. A recent blog post at Radio Station Management by industry insider Doug McLeod says it all: “Before you dismiss Low-Power FM (LPFM) stations as ‘Amateur Night at the Bijou,’ consider this: All those volunteer program hosts will be talking about local issues, local music, local people. How often does any of that happen on your stations?”

It doesn’t happen–and that’s why the corporate broadcast industry fears the new stations. We’ve long known that commercial stations are piping in outside programming and skimping on local affairs. But now hundreds, if not thousands, of communities will have the option of listening to stations committed to localism.

Danielle Chynoweth of the Prometheus Radio Project, which led the fight for LPFM stations, says commercial broadcast stations’ failures have created opportunity for community radio.

“Community radio has more vitality and juice than many commercial stations,” Chynoweth said. “Although we don’t gouge their advertising base, we are competition for listeners. They make it so easy for us to be – they have gutted the local voices, programming and perspectives that people long for.”

In fact, McLeod’s post essentially lays out the case for LPFM stations, listing all the “interesting things” happening in community media that “local broadcasters used to do but often don’t anymore.” His list includes discussing community issues, giving a voice to communities of color and being a local resource.

Rather than pulling the “welcome” mat from the doorstep and coolly doing business as usual, let’s hope commercial broadcasters see the arrival of LPFM stations as a wake-up call to better serve listeners, rather than a threat to their current business model.

“If commercial radio takes the mass expansion of LPFM seriously, we could see a positive influence on mainstream media, especially in small and mid-sized towns where small interventions have large consequences,” Chynoweth said.

The need for quality, local reporting and programming is greater than ever. The good news is, there’s plenty of room for more than one station dedicated to local coverage, because community radio stations’ signals only travel so far.

So broadcasters, don’t get angry about new neighbors making you look bad–just do better.

Megan Tady is a blogger and video producer for Free Press, the national nonprofit media reform organization. She writes a monthly InTheseTimes.com column on media issues. Follow her on Twitter: @MegTady.

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