Senate passes community radio bill: Low power FM to be expanded nationwide

With the clock ticking toward the end of this year's Congress, the Senate on Saturday passed a new law which will enable community groups, churches and schools across the country to establish new non-commercial, low-power FM radio stations in their cities and towns.

The Local Community Radio Act, which will allow the FCC to issue possibly thousands of new noncommercial LPFM radio licenses, earned broad, bipartisan support after some ten years of organizing by grassroots media democracy advocates from coast to coast. Backers of the bill included a stupefying range of civil rights groups, religious organizations, musicians, unions and garage-bound radio dreamers around the country.

Washington State elected officials played a pivotal role in passing the bill into law; Senator Maria Cantwell championed the bill in the Senate, and House cosponsors included Washington Rep. Jay Inslee.

"This is a huge win for communities across the northwest and across the country who have been pining for more and better local radio, more support for local music and more diversity on the airwaves," said Jonathan Lawson of Reclaim the Media, a Seattle-based media justice organization which has worked alongside other advocacy groups since 2002 to expand community access to media, including LPFM. "Senator Cantwell deserves our thanks for seeing this through to the end."

The FCC initially created the Low power FM service radio in 2002, as a way to counter the dramatic consolidation of radio ownership which followed the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and the resulting drop in diverse programming and local voices. However, pressure from commercial broadcasters quickly led Congress to impose substantial barriers to LPFM, so that only a relatively small number of stations were able to launch, and mostly in rural areas.

The new law removes most of those barriers, creating the opportunity for many more stations to occupy unused space on the FM dial. LPFM stations are noncommercial, must be operated by a local nonprofit, religious organization or public institution, and are limited to 100 watts.

Northwest groups that have been able to build and launch LPFM stations have demonstrated the tremendous utility and power of low-power radio. In Woodburn, Oregon, KPCN allows immigrant farmworkers to share news, information and music in Spanish and several other Latin American languages. Spokane's Thin Air Radio and Idaho's Radio Free Moscow provide those communities with local public affairs and homegrown music programs—while giving new broadcasters a place to learn the tools of the trade.

The new law is a landmark achievement for public interest media advocates who have been working on this bill for years. Galvanized by the trailblazing work of the Prometheus Radio Project and the Media Access Project, a host of other groups deserve credit for helping wage the struggle for LPFM: the Future of Music Coalition, Media Alliance, Reclaim the Media, the Chicago Independent Radio Project, Free Press, United Church of Christ Office of Communication, Inc, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Media and Democracy Coalition, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the Benton Foundation and many others.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey