Media Politics: Low Power to the People

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by Jonathan Lawson

Speaking before an audience of Mercer Island High School students in May, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell recalled an experience which impressed upon her the power of independent, grassroots media to undergird democratic principles. In the mid-1990s, her then-employer Real Networks provided an Internet broadcast for the dissident Belgrade pirate station B92, whose independent news and pro-democracy broadcasts had been taken off the air by the Milosevic regime. The Internet broadcasts were picked up around the world, disseminating crucial, critical perspectives on what was going on in Serbia. Serbs themselves were able to keep listening via the Internet as well as through rebroadcasts on international stations.

Cantwell told the students that B92's example demonstrated that independent, community-controlled media institutions play an important role in the health of a democracy, even music stations like Mercer Island's own student-run hip hop station KMIH. She praised the public interest value of community radio and educational stations like KMIH, in the context of the American radio landscape where making money is often the dominant concern. "Having access to diverse opinions and viewpoints is also important," Cantwell said. "Media diversity is important to all of us."��

This summer, Cantwell is backing two new bills to support community radio. One bill, introduced by Cantwell herself, is specifically targeted at protecting a small number of educational stations like KMIH from having their frequencies poached by larger broadcasters. The other, introduced by Senators John McCain and Patrick Leahy and co-sponsored by Cantwell, would do much more to enhance local voices and diverse content on the airwaves, by expanding Low Power FM (LPFM).

A Second Chance for LPFM

LPFM stations are locally owned, locally programmed, and entirely commercial-free, covering rural areas or cities at 100 watts or less. The format was envisioned by the FCC in 1999 as a partial antidote to the hypercommercialization and consolidation which plagued the radio airwaves in the wake of the deregulatory 1996 Telecommunications Act. The broadcasting industry fiercely opposed the new standard, and attacked LPFM in Congress with an aggressive misinformation campaign culminating in passage of the euphemistically-named ���Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000,��� which all but murdered LPFM in its crib. While dozens of LPFM stations have been granted licenses in the last four years, including over 25 in Washington State, thousands are envisioned by the FCC���and by the new Senate bill.

By repealing the Preservation Act, the McCain/Leahy bill would dramatically increase the potential for new community stations across the country. It would make many more channels available to LPFM, elevating the classification out of its current experimental status. The repeal would also lift a prohibition placing LPFM licenses off-limits to former pirate broadcasters���an ironic prohibition considering the role many such activists played in convincing the FCC to introduce LPFM in the first place.

Apart from former pirates, Low Power FM licenses are attractive to different kinds of would-be broadcasters, including cultural organizations, municipal governments, schools, and music communities. Churches account for the single largest block of interest. Out of some 69 LPFM license applications submitted in Washington State two years ago, over a third were from religious organizations. Media democracy advocates working to build Congressional support for the expansion of LPFM hope to form strategic alliances with Christian broadcasters.

Such relationships may prove crucial to LPFM���s success; as noted above, the restriction of LPFM in 2000 was largely due to a powerful lobbying alliance forged between the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio. The two groups argued then that LPFM would cause untenable interference with existing broadcasters. Four years later, independent research has debunked the interference arguments to the satisfaction of all impartial experts, including FCC chair Michael Powell. The fact that both groups remain strongly opposed to LPFM anyway suggests that the incumbent broadcasters simply don���t want the additional competition. NAB and NPR can both be counted on to mount a strenuous if not colossal battle to keep Congress from enacting the People���s desire for more local noncommercial radio.

KMIH: Let the Music Play

Visitors to the studios of KMIH/X104 step from the concrete-walled hallways of Mercer Island High School into an ultra-modern, fully computerized radio studio, with multiple studio booths and a comfortable interview lounge with microphone stands emerging from a low coffee table. It���s a setup which resembles corporate radio operations more than a low-budget college or community station. The station's 100-watt signal, while meek by commercial standards, nevertheless allows it to reach some 35,000 households in the Seattle urban area, and its Hip Hop /R&B programming offers a noncommercial alternative to Clear Channel���s KUBE.

Despite all this, KMIH operates under a Class D 'educational' license - a type of license which the FCC hasn't issued in fifteen years, and which gives the station a weak claim on its own frequency if a Class A station wants to take it over. That potential threat became real for Mercer Island High two years ago, when Mid-Columbia Broadcasting applied to move its 100,000-watt KMCQ into the Seattle radio market, taking over KMIH's frequency.

Fighting off this threat to the station's existence has frustrated KMIH staff and listeners, some of whom have a long relationship with the 25-year-old station. General Manager Nick DeVogel worked at KMIH as a student years ago before embarking on a career in broadcasting, later returning to teach at Mercer Island. The station still serves as a training ground for DJs entering the world of professional radio.

On May 28 the FCC approved KMCQ's relocation request. That might have been the end of the story for KMIH, but for Cantwell's support, announced publicly that same day, as the Senator toured the station and made a brief speech (quoted above) praising media diversity and community radio���s role in preserving democracy. Cantwell's new bill would protect KMIH and about a dozen other high-powered Class D stations by elevating them to Class A status���a move which some engineers say the FCC should have taken on its own years ago. After Cantwell's announcement of support for the station, the FCC suspended its earlier decision favoring KMCQ, placing the matter once again in limbo. Station staff remain hopeful that the FCC, or Congress or the courts, will arrive at a decision allowing KMIH to stay on the air; the station is soliciting donations to cover rising legal fees.

The chances of either of the Senate bills becoming law this year are uncertain at best. It's an election year and very few things are moving through Congress. But activist groups including Philadelphia's Prometheus Radio Project and Seattle-based Reclaim the Media are working to mobilize broad community support, which they hope will translate into bipartisan Congressional action, standing up to the corporate broadcasting lobby and breathing new life into community media.

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