Low-power to the People
Political activists, music buffs and church groups are eagerly pursuing low-power radio licenses that will allow them to reach neighborhoods rather than regions. But commercial stations--and NPR--want Congress to slow down this bandwagon.
By Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist, is a regular contributor to AJR.
CHRISTOPHER MAXWELL WAS working as a drywall finisher when he approached the bosses of his local public radio station in Richmond, Virginia, WCVE, and asked why they couldn't air his favorite programs--National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation," the intelligent interviews of "Fresh Air"--or perhaps play some local bands, or at least some music more adventuresome than the station's middle-of-the-road classical fare.
Maxwell's request was politely rebuffed. When he pressed the issue, asking the station to open up a second frequency for local news and other alternative programming, he says he was told to go start his own station. Which is precisely what Maxwell--like 13,000 other Americans who have requested applications from the FCC to launch low-power FM stations--is trying to do.
"Radio has become a wasteland," says Maxwell, 34, a self-described computer geek and former cab driver who runs Radio Free Richmond out of his overflowing backpack. "As a teenager, I had the usual adolescent angst, and I got pulled out of it by a talk radio host in South Florida. Once or twice a week, I would feel myself opening up to new information and ideas. That's what radio can do, whether it's through real conversation or some feature that takes you to a place you've never been."
Radio Free Richmond has no transmitter, no license, no programming. It is an idea, an application sitting in a drawer at the Federal Communications Commission. But Maxwell has an e-mail discussion group with 300 participants, a mailing list of 1,200, and dozens of volunteers eager to help out as deejays, news reporters and talk show hosts.
"I call it radio for the rest of us," says Maxwell, who has heard from Buddhists, atheists, world-beat music fans, liberals and John Birchers, local politicians and neighborhood activists, all of whom want a piece of his airtime, should he ever get any.
For the first time since the 1950s, when FM was a curiosity, a generational cry of "Let's start a radio station!" is sweeping the nation.
It may seem retro for so many people to be clamoring for access to the airwaves when the infinite Internet is just reaching its adolescence. After all, anyone can put a radio station on the Web, and about 10,000 already have. But as Maxwell notes, "Radio is so stone simple and affordable. I can literally walk down an alley and find a working FM radio in a trash can. That's inclusive."
And radio has another advantage that has been almost entirely tossed aside in the rush to embrace satellite and Internet technologies: It is supremely local. "The Internet is worldwide," Maxwell says. "I want stories on my station about the Richmond City Council. The proportion of people on the Web who would care is tiny. The percentage of people in Richmond who will care is in the double digits."
JUST AS 1970s cable access channels, with their amateur documentaries and gavel-to-gavel coverage of city council meetings, paved the way for C-SPAN and CNN to revolutionize TV news, low-power FM is poised to add protein to the virtually meatless stew that radio news has become (see "Blackout on the Dial," June 1998).
For as little as $10,000, including equipment and rent, a church group, an ethnic minority, a political faction or just a gang of radio nerds, music buffs or plain old neighbors can be on the air with a low-power station. The FCC plans to license hundreds of such stations in the next couple of years; already, tens of thousands of groups like Maxwell's--including Navajo tribes, Haitians in Florida, conservative fundamentalist churches, jazz societies, schools and a loose nationwide network of radical, perforated punks--are preparing applications.
The government's relatively swift launch of low-power stations (LPFM) was spurred by two opposing forces: the overwhelming wave of media concentration unleashed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which enabled literally a handful of megacorporations to buy up 4,000 of the nation's 10,000 radio stations in just a couple of years; and the advent of new technologies that make it possible to add multiple voices to a narrowing national media landscape.
The very definition of radio is about to change considerably, as the distinction between the Internet and radio frays and perhaps vanishes; as satellites that will beam nationwide programming directly to your car and home are put into orbit; and as traditional radio bands develop subcarriers enabling stations to broadcast more than one signal on each frequency.
All these changes will broaden the choice of music and spoken-word programming, providing a broadcast version of Books on Tape, business lectures, inspirational talks and children's stories. And there will be some expansion of audio journalism: Both of the national satellite companies, XM Radio and Sirius, which will beam signals from orbiting transmitters to tiny dishes on your car or windowsill, are busily signing up the likes of the BBC, NPR and Bloomberg News to provide content for their 100-station universes.
But the missing component in this wave of new technologies is local programming, and especially local news. That's where LPFM comes in.
The idea is as old as radio itself. Set up a cheap transmitter, get yourself some folks who want to put on a show and switch it on. Driven by the swift consolidation of the industry and the loss of local programming as the four horsemen of commercial radio--Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, Don Imus and Laura Schlessinger--came to dominate the dial, FCC Chairman William Kennard surprised the radio establishment by pushing aggressively for a new class of licenses that would build a nationwide system of tiny, very local voices.
Commercial FM stations broadcast with many thousands of watts of power, as many as 300,000 watts, enabling them to be heard over an entire region. Low-power stations will have just 100 watts--enough power to be heard a couple of miles away. Kennard, once a deejay at his college station, declared LPFM to be the "antidote to consolidation."
No one will get rich off LPFM; it will be strictly noncommercial. No one will get powerful off LPFM--no person or entity will be permitted to be involved in more than one station. But the large number of requests for applications underscores the idea's appeal.
While the FCC plans to grant licenses in the next few months, the stations still face a hard road, including a strong attempt in Congress to turn back the FCC initiative (see "Lobbying Against Low-power Radio"). Opposition comes primarily from commercial radio stations, some truly worried about the prospect of signals that might interfere with reception of their own programming, others simply suspicious of any alternative to the homogenized musical fare they offer. Huge companies such as Clear Channel, Infinity and Citadel, which have collectively bulked up from 80 stations in 1996 to more than 1,200 today, have managed to block newcomers from the radio dial by bidding up the price of radio frequencies to the same ballpark as major league sports teams.
The anti-low-power campaign is being led by the National Association of Broadcasters and an unlikely ally, NPR, which shocked some of its own member stations and many of its listeners and staff by siding with the commercial stations. Most public stations are clustered near the low end of the FM dial, which is often crowded with public, religious and educational stations. The Washington, D.C.-based network fears that low-power stations will interfere with NPR programming and make it harder for the network to set up translators that would extend its stations' signals to hard-to-reach corners of the country.
That puts the premier provider of radio news in direct confrontation with some of its most dedicated listeners, including people like Maxwell in Richmond, or a Twin Cities ministry planning a low-power station to provide news and public affairs programming for Cambodian and Hmong immigrants, or a New York City collective hoping to go on the air with poetry, feminist talk, neighborhood news, hip-hop music and bicycle repair advice.
PETE TRIDISH IS NOT exactly William Kennard's idea of the perfect ambassador for low-power FM. More like his nightmare. TriDish--he has stubbornly retained his pseudonym from his days as a radio pirate--is a proud veteran of the Free Radio Movement, a fancy name for the radicals, rockers and radio freaks who have driven the FCC nuts in recent years by building their own transmitters and just going on the air--no license, no nothing.
But TriDish tired of the underground life. "As pirates, we hit a glass ceiling," he says. "Because for every programmer we had, there was another who couldn't get involved with us because they had kids and couldn't risk arrest, or they had a prior conviction or a shaky green card. We wanted a radio station that would be for everyone, not just for the unreasonably flaky."
The FCC's crackdown on pirates--the agency has been silencing about 150 pirate stations a year lately--resulted in some violent confrontations and a lot of ill will. But it was the pirates as much as anyone else who helped make LPFM a reality and who have inspired thousands of others to get into the competition for low-power licenses.
The ultimate expression of that shift to legitimacy is TriDish, whose Prometheus Radio Project has gone mainstream enough to have won $25,000 grants from both the Ford and Soros foundations, money that pays for TriDish to wander the country as a laid-back, alternative minstrel preaching the gospel of radio for the people. He helps everyone--from schools to churches, political activists to ethnic minorities--learn about applying for a license, setting up a station and fighting through the bureaucracy of the FCC.
TriDish looks like a pirate. With his untamed, long beard, T-shirts promoting radical causes and secretive manner, he wouldn't get far in the lobbying frenzy now surrounding the low-power issue on Capitol Hill. But out in the country, where groups ranging from the United Church of Christ in New York to Asian refugees in Wisconsin to anti-corporate activists in California see LPFM as a way to get their perspectives onto the airwaves, TriDish is a cult figure, a hero.
He's constantly watching his back, expecting the forces of commercial broadcasting to sabotage low-power FM, but he occasionally allows himself to envision the radio world to come: "A lot of people are doing this mostly to get 'their music' on the air, but there are also many people who want to tell stories and report their idea of what the news is. Journalism on pirate radio was mostly a lot of people with $5 Walkmen going around saying 'Hey, you! What's going on!'
"But on low-power stations, there'll be a redefinition of news. [In-your-face gonzo journalist/activist] Michael Moore's been a big influence on people, confronting companies. Some people will have a traditional nightly newscast, but more than that, you'll hear shows devoted to particular issues."
On TriDish's old pirate station, Radio Mutiny, which was shut down and had its equipment confiscated by the FCC, an ex-convict did a weekly show called "Incarceration Nation" with reports on corrections law and people who were ill-treated by the criminal justice system. Radio Mutiny had no straight newscast, but a menu of public affairs offerings including "Africa Report," whose host had been a combatant in South Africa's battle against apartheid, and shows on health and labor--hosted by activists. "Many people on LPFM will have a closer relationship to what they're reporting than a traditional reporter does," TriDish predicts.
Indeed, at the recent Grassroots Radio Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, traditional journalists appeared side by side on panels with activists who ran the media operations for anti-World Trade Organization and anti-World Bank protesters in Seattle and Washington, D.C. Several people spoke of the "newscasts" on Howard Stern's morning raunchfest as a model for delivering news to a nation that has soured on the mid-20th-century model of broadcast news. TriDish himself helped set up the radio center for anti-globalism protesters at the Republican National Convention in his hometown of Philadelphia.
In the world of community radio, no wall separates journalist from activist. And in low-power FM, there is little sympathy for the concept of "professional" journalist. In fact, many in the movement mimic the early revolutionary rhetoric of the Internet, the mid-1990s claims that the Web would eliminate the middleman and bring unfiltered news directly from people to people.
"It's not surprising that most of the low-power applications are from people who want to do Me Radio or My God Radio," TriDish says. "A lot of the applicants are people like me who are tired of having to go downtown in clown uniforms and do stunts to get a few seconds on TV for our issues."
But while TriDish's issues are mainly the national and international causes driving the anti-WTO protests, other low-power advocates are more devoted to replacing what's disappearing from commercial radio--local news.
"The biggest strength of low-power is going to be bringing back localism, in both news and music," says Glenn Austin, a cofounder of Americans for Radio Diversity, a Minneapolis-based group born after the demise of a commercial rock station that had built a strong following with an overtly countercultural mix of local music and politics.
Broadcasting to small clusters of urban neighborhoods or a single small town, low-power stations are designed expressly to promote the localism now fading from the rest of the media landscape. That's why the huge number of religious groups that filed for licenses in the first wave of applications troubles LPFM advocates. TriDish welcomes the applications of individual churches but is troubled by those from national religious organizations. "Emotionally, it's difficult," TriDish says, "because we fought so long and so hard for LPFM, and now these churches just swoop in."
ACTUALLY, EVANGELICAL CHURCHES filing the largest number of applications may be the best political ally LPFM has, providing a conservative counterweight to the mostly left-of-center community groups that previously dominated the low-power movement. ###
"It's going to be up to the FCC to verify how local these applicants really are," says Carol Pierson, president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, which represents small noncommercial stations and supports LPFM. "When you see Calvary Church applying for a huge number of licenses, that's not the kind of grassroots applicant that the FCC had in mind," Pierson says.
If LPFM is a success, Pierson believes existing community stations will follow their lead with more local news. "Community stations now are under great pressure to put on minority-language programs and play narrow musical formats," she says. "Low-power could take over those functions and relieve the pressure, letting our stations do more local programming. Local public affairs is going to be what distinguishes us from the rest of the media environment."
But the cultural and intellectual gulf separating many low-power advocates from the traditional concept of journalism should not be underestimated. This is a movement very much driven by a deep sense of alienation from the status quo.
They are college kids and ex-'60s radicals, refugees from commercial news operations and true believers who have stayed with community radio despite years of little or no pay. They work in the media but view themselves as very much outside it.
The right and the left use exactly the same words to describe their strategy for supplanting the "mainstream media," which they deride as arrogant, superficial and out of touch: "Media Bypass" is the name of both a right-wing magazine and a left-wing movement. In both cases, the idea is that the only way the ideas and actions of ordinary citizens can find a voice is through alternative media that purport to deliver unwashed messages.
In fact, at both ends of the political spectrum, the alternative media have rapidly moved from grassroots activism to traditional structures. When anti-World Trade Organization protesters set up Independent Media Centers (www.indymedia.org) to produce Web sites, TV and radio productions and even their own newspapers during protests, they opened their facilities to all comers. But as time wore on, it became clear that some reports were far better than others, and that only a few reports were worthy of getting top billing on the homepage and broadcasts. That required editors and editorial policy, and, pretty soon, there was a fairly standard newsroom in operation, even if its inhabitants insist that they make decisions "by consensus" rather than through a hierarchy.
Similarly, on the right, rogue anti-Clinton talk show hosts and Webmeisters have coalesced around a handful of radio syndication services and sites that do business the old-fashioned way--they aim to turn profits.
Low-power advocates say they want to follow a different model, staying outside the corporate system while following the battle cry of musician and free speech crusader Jello Biafra, who said, "Don't hate the media, become the media."
"Dr. Diogenes," a pseudonym for a member of the Free Radio Twin Cities Collective, a pirate station in Minneapolis, is part of a collective of about 25 people whose station wanders around the dial, always on the run from FCC enforcement agents. Diogenes and his fellow deejays mostly play music--hip-hop, roots, alternative rock and folk--but they're also committed to news--as they define it. When local hotel workers went on strike, members of the collective attended and taped workers' rallies for airplay. When the Minneapolis City Council proposed to make it illegal to wear gas masks, radio activists who opposed the measure on the grounds that it was aimed at protest movements covered the debate on the pirate station.
"We also use canned media, like 'Counterspin,' " the weekly show from the left-of-center Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Diogenes says, "and stuff we get off the Web, like 'Under Lock and Key,' " a Maoist take on prison issues, or "Church of the Subgenius," programming from an anti-religion religion with a cult following.
The line dividing pirates from licensed stations is sometimes thin indeed. Some pirate stations routinely use programming that also airs on licensed public radio stations--and many low-power applicants plan to do the same.
In Oakland, California, producer Kellia Ramares has launched the Radio Internet Story Exchange, an Internet-based storehouse of radio news reports and features posted by producers for pick-up by stations around the country. No money changes hands, but reporters get their work heard by a wider audience and stations get to flesh out newscasts that otherwise struggle to fill their time slot. A similar effort called the A-Infos Radio Project offers a catalog of reports and programs such as a documentary on radiation-poisoned victims of Cold War nuclear testing, a gay newsmagazine, lectures by Ralph Nader and convicted murderer Mumia Abu-Jamal and reports from street protests outside the national political conventions.
That kind of programming may not be exactly what the FCC has in mind; it envisions low-power as a medium that will restore local issues and voices to the airwaves. But the FCC's Kennard shares some of the rhetoric of the radio revolutionaries, speaking of "the haves--the broadcast industry--trying to prevent many have-nots--small community and educational organizations--from having just a little piece of the pie, just a little piece of the airwaves, which belong to all of the people."
Beyond the rhetoric, the reality of LPFM, assuming it indeed gets on the air, will likely be a blend of disappointment and discovery--more of the same old radio fare, albeit with some new flavors of music, plus some real experimentation in nonfiction audio.
"Our public affairs programs often awaken people to take action, to get involved, sometimes to start new organizations to work on specific issues," write Marty Durlin, station manager of KGNU in Boulder, Colorado, and Cathy Melio, former manager of WERU in East Orland, Maine, in a paper on the grassroots radio movement.
But low-power stations will find themselves limited by the same forces that restrict the amount and quality of news heard on existing community stations, most of which rely heavily on volunteers. "The fact in community radio is that very few people come in the door wanting to do journalism," says Sam Fuqua of Boulder's KGNU, a popular and edgy community station. "They usually have an opinion to get across. And even if they want to report, they find that you can produce an interview show in a couple of hours, but to do a seven-minute news piece takes at least eight to 10 hours."
Even at existing stations such as WORT in Madison--which has the luxury of a large complement of volunteers--the daily local news program staff, 20 or so radio amateurs who call themselves the In Our Backyard Collective, "spends a lot of our time rewriting the newspapers," says Rob McClure, a founder of the group.
Fuqua agrees: "We don't like having to do that, but that's our main source. Our state and local news is largely rewrites from the newspapers, without the car crashes and fluffy stories. The hardest thing to get people to do is go out and cover events."
Still, community stations do add value: KGNU stages debates on city issues and airs voice mail from listeners. WORT broadcasts farm news and a preview of the city's multicultural weekly, and has a volunteer who reviews the free food at local potlucks and benefit dinners.
And in a media landscape in which local content is vanishing quickly and listeners and viewers are fleeing in droves, that's something distinctive. TV viewing has dropped by 5 percent in the past year, and radio listening is down by 12 percent in the same period, according to a July study of media use by Fairfield Research, a Nebraska-based survey company. Arbitron, the radio ratings service, finds a smaller decline but agrees on the general trend. The impact of the Internet is certainly one of the reasons for the drop. But while print has held its own--the Fairfield survey found people actually spending a bit more time with print than they did a year ago--broadcast has suffered a continuing loss of public interest and confidence.
That's where low-power advocates see their opportunity. At the Grassroots Radio Conference, community radio producers and managers and low-power advocates screened a video made by the Center for Independent Public Broadcasting, a Washington lobby pushing to halt public TV and radio's dependence on corporate advertising and government aid. The video includes a clip from the movie "Network," in which Peter Finch plays the crazed but right-on TV news anchor who urges his audience to open their windows and join him in shouting their outrage.
As they viewed the clip, this audience of radio people suddenly joined in as one, some laughing, but most quite seriously following Finch's directive: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore!"