Airwaves Belong to the People

The airwaves belong to the people. Yet the U.S. government gives them away to television and radio broadcasters for free, and demands virtually nothing in return.
We have forfeited many of the means of mass communication to concentrated corporate interests, consigning ourselves to homogenized low-grade entertainment and lower-grade copy-cat “newstainment” that barely aspires to inform let alone energize our eroding democracy. The major television networks are owned by giant conglomerates – General Electric, Disney, Viacom, Fox, Time Warner. Radio is even worse, with Infinity and Clear Channel dominating the airwaves.

Yet technology keeps offering us new opportunities to learn from the past, and ensure that new media deepen our democracy and serve public, noncommercial interests.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently authorized non-commercial low power FM radio broadcasts. Low power FM (LPFM) has the potential to strengthen community organization and enrich public life, by permitting genuinely local broadcasting to serve the needs of local audiences.

Not surprisingly, the powerful National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is trying to block LPFM. The NAB hopes to leverage its enormous political influence to slip a provision to block the FCC’s authorization of LPFM into a “rushed-through-Congress-at the-end-of-the-legislative-year” funding” bill.

The NAB wants to make sure that grassroots challenges to its dominance of the airwaves do not emerge.

Right now, if they air regular news at all, most major-market radio stations do not even produce their own news. Instead, they rely on outside services that may be thousands of miles from the people that they’re supposed to serve. Some communities aren’t represented in media at all: One news director doesn’t bother to cover poor neighborhoods because they “might as well be in another dimension.” Another dimension, he means, from the wealthier audience the station’s sponsors and owners care about.

Low power FM offers the opportunity to offset commercial radio’s inadequacies, decentralize broadcasting and empower neighborhoods’ and communities. Labor union locals will be able to broadcast to their members; communities will have a radio forum to debate and discuss local issues; ethnic groups will be able to air programming to meet their particular needs, including non-English broadcasting; senior citizen centers will be able to reach seniors who cannot make it to the centers’ physical facilities; local
government meetings can be broadcast to the community. Under the FCC’s plan, 1,000 or more 100-watt stations serving areas with a 3.5 mile radius, plus additional 10-watt stations serving a 1-2 mile radius, could be licensed.

The NAB contends that low power stations will interfere with the quality of existing stations’ sound. But the FCC, which is not known for hostility to the industry it regulates with kid gloves, has concluded that its licensing arrangement for LPFM will not cause unacceptable levels of interference to existing radio stations.

There is every reason to rely on the FCC’s assessment rather than the NAB’s. But it comes as no surprise that political decisions in Washington are often made on factors other than the merits, and there is now a serious risk that Congress will override the FCC’s plan. In the Senate, Senator Rod Grams, R-Minnesota, has introduced S. 3020, which would drastically scale back the FCC’s plan and is similar to a bill that passed the House of Representatives in April. Senator Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, has introduced a bill, S.2068, that would eliminate LPFM entirely. The greatest legislative threat, however, probably is posed by the possibility that anti-LPFM language will be inserted into a funding bill. That is the kind of backroom dealmaking in which NAB-style fat-cat lobbyists specialize.

Whether a tiny fragment of the public’s airwaves will be returned to the public for LPFM depends now on whether the public is ready to assert its interests. Call your senators, and tell them not to interfere with LPFM. A working democracy requires some public control of the means of communication.
For more information on LPFM and for breaking legislative news, contact the Media Access Project at (202) 232-4300, or check their web page at www.mediaaccess.org.

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