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FM Radio Could Open Up to Hundreds of Community Organizations

New FCC rules will enable hundreds of local organizations to apply for FM licenses.

Thousands of non-profits across the United States are preparing to take advantage of what could wind up as the largest expansion of community radio in the nation’s history.

From October 15 to October 29, the Federal Communications Commission will be accepting applications for low-power FM radio licenses—community radio stations that broadcast at 100 watts or less, typically listenable within a roughly 5-mile radius. Organizations must be locally owned, not-for-profit and be able to identify an unused frequency in their area. The FCC has no set quota on how many licenses it will issue, but community radio advocates estimate the number will eventually be around 1,000.

“The significance of this is pretty immense,” says Ian Smith, program director at the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project, an organization that promotes progressive community radio and is now helping groups prepare their applications to the FCC. “It’s really the last major opportunity for communities and neighborhoods to get a piece of the airwaves.”

The FCC first created the LPFM designation in 2000. But thanks to a push from large broadcasters who warned against the risks of new stations signals’ interfering with their frequencies, Congress restricted the FCC from issuing the LPFM licenses in urban areas. Over the course of the next ten years, Prometheus and a host of other organizations pressured Congress to expand license eligibility through the  Local Community Radio Act, which finally passed on its third attempt in 2010.

The two-week window in October may be the last chance for community radio stations to get a share of the airwaves. Not only will it be politically challenging to enable the FCC to issue more licenses, but there are also clear technical limitations. As the FM dial gets more and more crowded, it could be quite awhile before as many frequencies are up for grabs again.   

As a result, a wide array of non-profit groups and educational institutions are hoping to take advantage of the opportunity.  

“There’s libraries, there’s community theaters, there’s farm worker organizations and worker centers, environmental justice organizations, media groups, existing online radio stations who want to go on the FM dial, arts organizations. The range is really big,” Smith says.

Although the groups applying for licenses have different objectives, what many of them share is the sense that commercial radio—often dominated by large media conglomerates like Clear Channel that usually broadcast nationally syndicated content—is inadequate when it comes to addressing local issues. Whether it’s a library, a social justice group or an immigrant advocacy organization pushing for a station, community radio advocates have the sense that they’re filling in critical political and cultural voids across the country.

Tallin Curran is the IT manager at the Six Mile Regional Library District, which serves a handful of towns in southwestern Illinois. He told reporters on a  Media Consortium press call that existing programming in the area tends to cover St. Louis issues—not so much the issues in his suburban community. Curran also said that a station, which he hopes would run with help from the local high school, could serve as a means to keep the library relevant as a public institution in the long run.

Another group applying is the Austin-based  Workers Defense Project, which has about 2,000 dues-paying members who work in Texas’ construction industry. Many of the group’s members are Latino immigrants and don’t speak English. There are Spanish-language broadcasters in Austin, says Patricia Zavala, the organization’s workplace justice coordinator, but they tend not to focus on issues specifically related to immigrant workers. In today’s corporate-dominated media landscape, an unapologetically pro-worker and pro-immigrant perspective is currently missing.

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