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Stuck Between Radio Stations

vumetersjpg.jpgWhen I’m on road trips, a favorite pastime is to flip through the radio dial trying to find local stations featuring regional music or other hidden treasures I may have overlooked. In recent years, though, these flips through the dial have increasingly become the aural equivalent of what urban sprawl critic James Howard Kunstler has termed the “geography of nowhere,” with the “local” stations’ music having all the color and life of the surrounding strip malls. Fortunately, an important bill just introduced in Congress, the Local Community Radio Act of 2007, will if passed remove an ill-conceived legal barrier that has thwarted the development of community radio for years.

The desensitizing sameness I’ve noticed on the road is not a coincidence. The nonprofit Media Access Project, which provides legal support for independent radio, reports that in the aftermath of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the total number of radio station owners has dropped by a third. Radio behemoth Clear Channel alone now operates over 1200 stations, and in most markets, four or fewer companies control more than seventy percent of total market share. By 2003, the average cost of a conventional radio license had grown to more than $2.5 million.

In 2000, with radio rapidly turning into a tame game played by multimillionaires, the Federal Communications Commission experienced an outburst of common sense. That year, the FCC set up rules that were designed to authorize thousands of noncommercial Low Power FM (LPFM) stations to serve communities at a fraction of the costs of a conventional station. But sadly, Congress several months later succumbed to lobbying pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters, leaving LPFM literally stuck between stations. The resulting law, sneaked into an unrelated appropriations bill, effectively barred LPFM from the 50 largest media markets in the country, by requiring these new stations to stay at least four intervals on the radio dial (0.6 megahertz) from existing full-power stations. And in a twist on Elvis Costello’s prediction in “Radio Radio,” radio is now in the hands of a shrinking number of fools “trying to anesthetize the way that you feel.”

lpfm.jpgThe licensed LPFM stations scattered around the country strongly hint at the format’s potential to provide something besides the same old vanilla sameness. They are impossible to pigeonhole, broadcasting everything from traditional gospel to progressive activism. Stations like KRBS in Oroville, California and WOOL in the Great Falls area of Vermont and New Hampshire combine ambitious public affairs programming with music from the heartland and around the world. KOCZ in Opelousas, Louisiana, run by the Southern Development Foundation, plays everything from contemporary hip-hop to classic zydeco. WRYR in Maryland educates the community on issues ranging from health to environmental sustainability, while Florida’s WCTI provides a voice and sounding board for a community of immigrant farm workers. In short, LPFM radio isn’t “Americana”; it’s America.

katrina.jpgAs Hurricane Katrina illustrated, real community radio is also an incredibly useful resource during a major emergency. In Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, local station WQRZ served as an emergency operations center for the surrounding county. When communications broke down in emergency operations at the Houston Astrodome, LPFM broadcasts provided critical information about the availability of food and the location of missing people.

The legal restrictions on LPFM remain in effect even though an independent $2.2 million engineering study commissioned under the same law, the MITRE report, debunked the large broadcasters’ trumped-up claims that these intervals were needed to avoid reception interference. Adding insult to inconsistency, the FCC in 2003 allowed a virtual gold rush of license applications for so-called “translator” stations, which repeat a larger station’s broadcast over two or more frequencies. For political rather than engineering reasons, translator stations have been allowed to operate without the severe interval requirements that have impeded LPFM. A small number of evangelical broadcasting networks accounted for a large fraction of these applications, and many of these stations now occupy scarce space on the radio spectrum that might have been devoted to independent community radio.

doyle.jpgFortunately, the bipartisan coalition supporting the Local Community Radio Act of 2007 stands poised to give community-based LPFM radio a fighting chance. The bill, introduced by Congressmen Mike Doyle and Lee Terry and Senators Maria Cantwell and John McCain, would end the draconian interval restrictions that have impeded LPFM radio and restore a measure of sanity and consistency to the FCC’s licensing procedures. An important safeguard in the bill protects against interference with full-power noncommercial stations that provide radio reading services for the blind and others with special needs.

If you’d like to see a renaissance of vibrant local programming, please contact your Congressional representatives and voice your support for this bill. Kudos to Stuck reader Matt Dinkel, Congressman Doyle’s press secretary–the rakish former frontman of the Token Suckers and one of the finest ex-trombonists on Capitol Hill–for bringing my attention to this worthy cause. Special thanks also go to Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, who are cooler than you think, for their outspoken support of this legislative change.

To sign a petition in support of the Local Community Radio Act of 2007, please click here.

From → Cut-Out Bin

3 Comments
  1. shacker permalink

    I personally haven’t listened to music on the radio in a substantial way since the early 80s (I do listen to NPR stations while driving though, which is itself rare), so am pretty out of touch with what’s available (or what isn’t available, which is what I usually experience when I flip it on out of morbid curiosity). But I do support the idea of genetic diversity on the air waves, and feel that media conglomeration represents a serious danger.

    It’s interesting to see the parallel struggles between LPFM and internet radio, both of which are under more-or-less constant attack by the giants who have already sucked all the air out of the room and still want the last few molecules for themselves.

    The air waves ultimately belong to the public, and the FCC’s job is that of guarding a public trust. When the FCC bows to Clear Channel and other media giants, we all get screwed out of access to other minds over the air waves that belong to all of us – not just to Rupert.

    clearchannelsucks.net is still going at it, BTW, though the site doesn’t seem to have the punch that it used to.

    Aside: It’s hard now to comprehend why that Elvis Costello SNL appearance was so controversial. Just because he stopped one song 30 seconds in and and started another? I think it played with that “danger!” chord struck by live TV – the idea that SNL was like a live concert and anything could happen. But it was a good song to switch to :).

  2. Roger Moore permalink

    The comment on internet radio is a timely one. Today is also the “day of silence” observed by scores of internet radio websites to protest the huge, retroactively-applied increases in royalty rates ordered by the Copyright Royalty Board, which will go into effect by July 15 unless Congress acts before then. A followup to your earlier post on this issue might be in order. The Internet Radio Equality Act now pending in Congress would vacate the CRB’s proposed rates and provide royalty parity for internet radio providers.

    http://www.kurthanson.com/dos/

  3. kandace permalink

    mr. moore,
    my name is kandace, formerly of hits magazine. are you the roger moore from urban radio (detroit, buffalo & florida)? if yes, i woud love to reconnect with you.
    if not, thank keep up the good work.
    sincerely,
    kandace

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