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The story of low-power radio is a cautionary tale on how a progressive victory can quickly be turned to conservative gain. Thanks to Rupert Murdoch, Clear Channel, and Sinclair Broadcasting, the right wing has long dominated corporate media. Now religious broadcasters are busy pushing community radio right off the FM dial.
Low-power FM (LPFM) radio is a service created five years ago by the Federal Communications Commission in response to an effective lobbying by progressive activists -- that enables schools, churches, civic associations, or clubs to establish their own neighborhood radio stations. Yet this vision of locally operated, independently programmed, and not-for-profit media is being threatened with extinction before it even gets off the ground.
The Dream of Low Power Radio
For years, media reform activists have fought valiantly to force the FCC to issue licenses for low power radio stations. Their dream: to create a space on the radio dial for true locally produced community programming, untainted by the profit considerations of large media conglomerates. Low power radio would finally give voice to those who needed it most: people of color, low-income communities, local organizations.
Five years after their victory, community radio has become the bastion of Christian programming. LPFM is being squeezed off the radio dial by religious broadcasters who are gobbling up FM frequencies at an astonishing speed. Their weapon of choice: low power translators.
While much of the media coverage of rightwing groups and low power radio has focused on low power licenses -- they represent about half of the applications (344) for the FCC low power licenses -- these broadcasters dominate low power frequencies primarily by acquiring translator licenses.
Translators, which range in power from 10 to 250 watts, were created by the FCC to help boost signals of existing stations in areas where the terrain can hamper their signals. Christian broadcasters use these translators to transmit programs from their bigger full-power stations. Unlike commercial stations which can only have a translator within the receivable range of the full-power "parent" station non-commercial groups such as religious broadcasters can place their translators at any distance and feed them via satellite or other means. As a result, one full-power station can be used to broadcast programming across a number of states, vastly extending its reach, especially in rural areas. And the more translators take up low power frequencies in a community, the less room for local radio stations on the FM dial. More importantly, Christian radio networks can gain access to small communities without having to produce any local programming -- since the FCC forbids translator stations from airing such programming.
The end result: community radio is literally being crowded off the radio by religious broadcasters.
The most notorious of the Christian broadcasters who abuse translator licenses is Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls, Idaho, which owns only 34 full-power radio stations, but transmits programming to 361 translators across the country from its flagship station, KAWZ.
While Calvary Chapel is by far the biggest user of translators, other such major broadcasters of Christian radio programming have large number of such stations of their own. They include the American Family Association Radio, Bott Radio Network, Bible Broadcasting Network, and Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. The combined heft of these broadcasters adds up to a level of audience penetration that's simply astonishing. Take, for example, "Portraits of Freedom," a syndicated program hosted by Alan Sears, the president and chief lawyer of the James Dobson-backed Alliance Defense Fund (ADF). And now look at the map of the stations and translators that broadcast this program. Translators, in essence, have become the backbone of a powerful radio empire of the religious right that reaches people in every corner of America.
This sprawling radio network has become a powerful means to disseminate the reactionary ideological agenda of the evangelical right and its leading organizations.
A good example is "Portraits of Freedom," which is produced and distributed by the ADF, a legal organization with its own staff attorneys and a network of 700 pro-bono lawyers -- all of whom work on filing lawsuits all over the country on issues close to the heart of the religious right. The program -- which presents dramatizations of ADF cases -- is essentially a piece of self-promotional propaganda designed to showcase ADF's efforts to "protect" the constitutional right to religious freedom of Christians against secularists who are ignorant of both faith and the law. Such egregious cases of discrimination include public school teachers who were stopped from praying for their students at recess; a non-profit called C.U.D.D.L.E. (Children Under Duress Divinely Loved Everywhere) that was prevented by a state Child Protective Services agency from distributing quilts bearing the words Jesus Loves You.
The other star of Christian radio is Jay Sekulow, president of the Pat Robertson-backed American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Sekulow is not just the head of ACLJ a group with a $15 million budget -- but also a board member of the politically powerful National Religious Broadcasters. He was named recently by Time magazine as one of the countrys 25 most influential evangelicals.
His daily, 30-minute program -- which is broadcast on over 550 stations and translators across the country is less a talk show than a tool for political organizing. Sekulow continually rallies his listeners to take action on a variety of causes important to the Christian right, be it the elimination of the judicial filibuster or displaying the Ten Commandments on government property, or protesting the Terry Schiavo case. In recent weeks, Sekulow used his program to mobilize listeners to call and write members of Congress, urging them to adopt the emergency legislation that threw the Schiavo case into the federal courts -- which was eventually passed in the wee hours of Palm Sunday.
Another rightwing star of the Terry Schiavo case is David Gibbs of the Christian Law Association, who represented Schiavos parents in their federal appeal. Gibbs broadcasts a ninety second Legal Alert on over 1,000 stations worldwide. Short and effective as an advertisement, the program repeatedly portrays the constitutional actions of public school districts and municipalities as part of an ongoing assault on faith in America. Therefore, an employers prohibition on witnessing in the workplace is interpreted as legal discrimination against believers. When school districts decide not to have holiday parties in order to avoid conflicts due to worries about favoring one religion over another, Gibbs will claim that Christmas is being made illegal. The enforcement of tax law barring churches (and other non-profits) from partisan electioneering represents an anti-Christian threat.
The absence of alternative views on the FM dial in remote communities makes this kind of ideological programming doubly effective, and the absence of alternative local programming all the more dangerous.
Despite these concerns, the FCC has done little to check the expansion of religious broadcasters or investigate its effects on community radio. While it did institute a freeze on granting additional construction permits for translators, it was prompted by allegations of fraud leveled against two companies with ties to Calvary Chapel, which are accused of applying for 4,200 translator permits for the sole purpose of selling them to other religious broadcasters (Trafficking in translator licenses is illegal.).
By the time of the freeze was put in place earlier this month, the FCC had already granted construction permits for nearly 1,000 of the companies' translator license applications. The decision will also not affect the numerous other religious broadcasters who have already received approval of hundreds of additional translators.
Sarah Posner is a writer and former attorney who most recently practiced at Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, where she brought legal challenges to court secrecy and litigated consumer rights and civil rights cases. She is a contributing writer for Gadflyer.com.