Low-Power urban FM radio - the next test for the Congressional Black Caucus

by Bruce Dixon, Black Agenda Report

This week or the next, bipartisan legislation will be introduced in the House and Senate to reopen the licensing of hundreds of nonprofit, community-owned low-power FM radio stations in urban areas across the country. After last year's two-thirds vote to let phone and cable companies deny high speed internet access and the economic benefits that go with it to the black communities they represent, CBC members have a chance to partially redeem themselves. But will they?

Mass media are the circulatory systems of modern societies. What they carry is the stuff of public discourse and public consciousness. Mass media form our individual and collective senses of ourselves. No wonder then, that in federal law broadcast airwaves are public property, with licenses granted on the basis that licensees will serve the public good. But the law is often very different from the fact.

"Mass media are the circulatory systems of modern societies. What they carry is the stuff of public discourse and public consciousness."

In fact, commercial media giants like Clear Channel, Radio One, Viacom and the like consider the broadcast airwaves their exclusive and private property. Paid TV and radio commercials are the main means of reaching mass audiences, with their importance exaggerated by the fact that broadcasters carry less, not more news during political campaign seasons. Stations charge are able so exorbitantly for the privilege of speaking to the public that the lion's share of campaign expenses are purchasing commercial airtime. Thus corporate media wield a huge influence over members of Congress and other public officials.

The campaign of gratuitous slurs and racist calumnies against former GA Rep. Cynthia McKinney for asking inconvenient questions, and the manufacture of Howard Dean's "scream" as an excuse the terminate his 2004 presidential campaign are just a couple examples of their power directed against politicians who don't kiss the ring quickly enough and with due deference. With this big stick and the carrot of their generous campaign contributions, big media are able to buy the laws and the lawmakers they want. Including black ones.

A decade ago low power FM radio was introduced and proved technically feasible. Existing regulations already banned low power community stations anywhere their signals might conflict with larger commercial stations, and even allowed many commercial stations to relocate into areas served by low-power stations and put them off the air. But for corporate media, who want to make their voice the only voice, this was not enough.

Through a front group, the National Association of Broadcasters big media made the incredible claim that low power signals on nearby frequencies somehow interfered with giant 50,000 stations. The FCC, with a few handfuls of actual broadcast engineers on its payroll dismissed the claim as transparently false, and prepared to hand out low power radio licenses nationwide, including the cities. So the NAB took its fictitious claim to Congress, where facts matter less than campaign contributions and the fear of big media disfavor. NAB and big media purchased themselves a law from Congress which limited low power FM in most cases to rural areas commercial broadcasters were not interested in "serving".

It has taken ten years of patient lobbying, organizing and arguing, and a government financed study by independent engineers. But media activists have proven to dozens of members of Congress that big broadcasters in the 1990s lied to keep the independent media voices of low power, not for profit urban FM radio off the air. So this week or next, Reps. Mike Doyle (D. PA) and Lee Perry (R NE) will introduce legislation that will enable not for profit community groups in cities across the land to own and operate their own low power community radio stations, typically with three to five mile broadcast footprints. In hundreds of large and medium sized urban areas like Brooklyn, Chicago, Miami, Baltimore-DC, Richmond, LA and the SF Bay area, a number of low power stations could have potential audiences in the high five and low six figures.

Mass media, as we said before, forms and determines public discourse and public consciousness. A look at what corporate media does and doesn't deliver to our communities reveals an alarming picture. Corporate media cherry-pick and distort our music, limiting our choices to the Bentley driving, platinum-toothed, pistol waving, rump-shakin' hundred dollar bill throwin' minstrel shows that fill the air on MTV and BET. Most pointedly, black oriented radio stations, even when under black ownership deliver little or no original local news (as opposed to "talk") coverage.

Corporate media, even when owned by blacks, are for the most part interested ONLY in serving African Americans as a consumer market, not a polity. To corporate media, we are not a political entity with our own unique history, our own political traditions, and a range of opinion different from and well to the left of white America. We exist, in the eyes of commercial media, only as a marketing opportunity, not as a whole and conscious people. Mainstream media are therefore determined to restrict the collective conversation in black America to entertainment, celebrity news and minstrel shows.

"The left-wing consensus politics of America's black communities is the milieu from which the Congressional Black Caucus originally emerged....if they cannot or will not protect the political scene which produced them, they doom themselves along with all of us."

Which brings us back to the Congressional Black Caucus, and the role corporate media play in our African American communities. When the Bay Area Center For Voting Research attempted to gauge the political temperament of 250 US cities in 2005, it came to an unsurprising conclusion. They found that African American communities around the country constitute the anchor and backbone of what has come to be called "liberalism" in America.

"The nation's remaining liberals are overwhelming African Americans...The BACVR study that ranks the political ideology of every major city in the country shows that cities with large black populations dominate the list of liberal communities."

Available polling data tend to confirm this conclusion. But despite the oft-repeated canard of a supposed "liberal media" the range of views in African American communities finds scant echo in what little news and public affairs programming is specifically produced for so-called "urban" markets, and none whatsoever in mainstream media.

The left-wing consensus politics of America's black communities is the milieu from which the Congressional Black Caucus originally emerged. CBC members, it seems, have drifted far since then. But if they cannot or will not protect the political scene which produced them, they doom themselves along with all of us.

What will the CBC do this time? Will they support the Doyle-Perry bill when it is introduced in the House Telecommunications SubCommittee this week or next? When it comes to defending our communities' right to speak to each over the mass media other with our own voices and listen to what we will with own ears, their recent record is not promising. Last year, a CBC member sponsored, and two thirds of CBC members voted for so-called "cable franchise" legislation that allowed giant phone and cable companies to continue to redline African American and poor neighborhoods, and deny them the educational and economic development benefits of universal high speed broadband internet.

That was then. This is now. The question this session is will they support urban low-power community FM radio, and its news and entertainment alternatives to the minstrel of black commercial radio. Or will they roll over again. It's the next big test for the Congressional Black Caucus.

How it will come out is anybody's guess, but the responsibility of every one of us. We urge you to call AND to email your representative in Congress, CBC or otherwise in support of the Doyle-Perry legislation on low power FM Radio which will be introduced this or the following week in the House Telecommunications SubCommittee. It's time for the people to reclaim the public airwaves.

For more up to date information on the fight to bring more voices and choices to the radio dial in your area, we also recommend that you visit these two sites at least once per week.

article originally published at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=259&I....

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