Low-power empowerment

When Hurricane Wilma hit Immokalee, Fla., radio station WCTI helped people find shelter by broadcasting essential local emergency information.

In Greenville, S.C., WLFJ, a Christian radio station, prepares local college students for careers in broadcasting while providing the community with local religious programming.

In New England, WSCA devotes more than 25 hours per week to locally produced music programming — making this station the place to go for music by independent artists and established regional acts that have been shut out of commercial radio.

All three of these are low-power, 100-watt radio stations that broadcast on the FM dial to listeners within a 3.5-mile radius.
The FCC has awarded more than 800 low-power FM (LPFM) licenses to church groups, schools, citizen groups, civil rights organizations and immigrant groups.

LPFM stations have become the focal point — the town square, in effect — for many communities. These stations are licensed to local nonprofit, school, church, and civic groups that understand local needs and offer local leaders and residents a forum to discuss issues affecting their community. They offer the local news, independent music, religious programming, foreign-language programming and farm reports that have disappeared — or never existed — on the rest of the radio dial.

LPFM stations have also been essential in times of crisis. WQRZ, an LPFM station broadcasting in Bay St. Louis, Miss., provided emergency services for its communities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Operated by local volunteers, this LPFM station in the Gulf Coast region stayed on the air and provided its neighbors with lifesaving information about the storm, the safety of local drinking water, and the means to get help from FEMA and local first responders.

Thousands of additional LPFM stations like these are needed in communities across the country, but Congress limited the areas in which such stations could be built seven years ago.

In 2000, Congress limited the number of licenses available because larger broadcasters claimed that the LPFM stations would cause interference with existing full-power FM stations — and ordered the FCC to study the interference issue. The resulting study, which was released in 2003, found that increasing the number of LPFM stations would not cause significant interference. The FCC subsequently urged Congress to repeal the restrictions it placed on licensing LPFM stations, but no action has been taken yet.

Lifting the current restrictions would allow more LPFM stations to operate in urban and suburban areas. Thousands of groups have submitted applications with the FCC for licenses to operate their own stations — but they are blocked by the current limits placed on where LPFM stations can operate.

We believe it is time for Congress to lift those restrictions. That is why we introduced the Local Community Radio Act (H.R. 2802), which would bring new local radio outlets to thousands of American cities and suburbs. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have introduced identical legislation in the Senate (S. 1675). Our efforts would increase diversity in local markets and empower local residents.

While creating more LPFM stations won’t eliminate our country’s need for more media diversity, our bill would provide more minorities and women with an opportunity to operate their own radio stations.  According to a new study by Free Press, minorities own just 7.7 percent of all full-power radio stations and women own only 6 percent.

The Local Community Radio Act is bipartisan legislation that deserves the support of all members of Congress who support localism, variety and diversity on the radio. LPFM promises to put the public airwaves back in the hands of the people. It’s time to allow our local communities to speak for themselves.