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Low-power FM radio brings diversity
to the airwaves    
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By Steve Macek and Karen Young

[JULY 16, 2004]  As educators who teach college students about media, we hear a lot of complaints about commercial radio.

When we assign our students to listen to the radio and report what they hear, horror stories abound. Earlier this year, one student reported that a rock station he listened to played approximately 13 minutes of commercials, followed by one song and then another 12 minutes of commercials. Students complain that today's best new rock bands get no airplay and that the music being played on commercial stations has become increasingly violent and misogynist. Even those who hope to land jobs in the industry cannot muster much enthusiasm about what they hear.

One reason for the growing discontent around programming is that large radio companies don't do enough to serve local communities or diverse tastes. One solution to this problem is to allow noncommercial low-power FM stations to go on the air.

In the past, radio companies were limited to owning one AM and one FM station in each market and seven stations nationwide. In those days more station owners were tied to their communities. Through the 1980s and '90s ownership regulations were relaxed, until they were all but abolished as a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Since 1996, ownership of many of the nation's 10,000 radio stations has become rapidly consolidated into the hands of a few large companies. In major cities, where most of the population lives, viable stations are now primarily owned by Viacom, Disney and Clear Channel.

Clear Channel is the largest radio owner in the United States, owning more than 1,200 stations and taking in at least 20 percent of all radio revenues. In Chicago, it owns six stations, including all the leading stations targeting African-Americans.

In Rockford, Cumulus, the company best known for banning the Dixie Chicks after one of their members made anti-Bush comments, owns four leading stations. More than half the population tunes in to at least one of their stations.

Radio conglomerates like Clear Channel have greatly increased their profits by slashing local jobs, replacing unique local elements with standardized programming created at regional and national headquarters, and sharply increasing the number of commercials they play. They simply do not provide enough local content or diverse voices.

For example, WXRT in Chicago had a news department with several full-time reporters when it was locally owned. Now it is owned by Viacom, one of the largest global media companies, and has only one part-time news employee. These cutbacks are bad for our culture and for our democracy.

 

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Fortunately, since 1996, community voices agitating for more alternatives to commercial radio have become louder and louder. In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission decided to allow hundreds of new low-power FM radio stations to go on the air. With a broadcast radius of up to 10 miles, these noncommercial stations could serve their neighborhoods with local public affairs, news programming and a wider array of music. The plan seemed like an ideal way to offset some of the losses caused by media ownership consolidation.

However, big corporate broadcasters lobbied against low-power FM by claiming that low-power transmitters interfered with their signals. Under pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters, Congress blocked the FCC from giving licenses to many low-power applicants, including the Black Business Alliance in Bloomington and Heartland Community College in Normal. In Chicago, the Southwest Youth Collaborative, a group that works with youth from some of the city's most poverty-stricken neighborhoods, wanted to start a low-power FM station but was unable to secure a license because of the limits put on low-power FM by Congress. In total, 37 applications for licenses have been made in Illinois and 17 have been approved, including the Not-for-Profit Jazz Group in Quincy, Blues and Soul Inc. in Danville, and the Southern Illinois Educational Low Power Radio Association in Frankfort.

The time has come to revisit low-power FM. A recent FCC-commissioned study found that these stations do not interfere with high-powered signals. A proposal has been made in Congress to bring low-power FM back. According to the Prometheus Radio Project, a low-power advocacy group, dozens, if not hundreds, of new low-power stations would be created in Illinois if this proposal were accepted.

Although low-power radio may not solve all of the problems with radio today, it would be a huge step in the right direction.

[Steve Macek and Karen Young]

* * *

Macek is an assistant professor of speech communication at North Central College in Naperville. Young is an adjunct professor at Columbia College in Chicago and a founder of the media activist group Active Voice.

The Illinois Editorial Forum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization that provides the media with the views of state experts on major public concerns in order to stimulate informed discussion.

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