Keeping Up With Community Radio

Megan Tady

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. 

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

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 The new law is par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful for urban areas, because it repealed past restric­tions that kept LPFM sta­tions out of cities.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 InThe​se​Times​.com col­umn on media issues. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @MegTady.
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