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Originally published September 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 25, 2008 at 4:30 PM

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The Democracy Papers

The Local Community Radio Act will increase local voices, choices

This fall, Congress has the opportunity to expand local radio choices for people in cities and towns across America by passing a single...

Special to The Times

The Democracy Papers is a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech. Technology has created space for more voices, yet fewer and fewer are heard.

The American press and media are being decimated by consolidation. This transformation from many owners into five or six large corporations and the lessening of small outlets for radio, newspapers, magazines and music are chilling a once robust marketplace of ideas. What should Americans do? This series explores the arguments and the backlash.

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This fall, Congress has the opportunity to expand local radio choices for people in cities and towns across America by passing a single, bipartisan piece of legislation. The Local Community Radio Act will allow hundreds more small noncommercial stations to fill vacant spaces on the radio dial — increasing local voices and music choices.

Folks in Opelousas, La., have a particularly strong understanding of the value of local community radio. When the Federal Communications Commission granted permission for a Low-Power FM (LPFM) community radio station in 2002, it was a point of pride for locals because the station would air zydeco music.

Despite its deep cultural roots in the community, zydeco could no longer be heard on the big commercial stations. And while the new station KOCZ didn't have the reach of the area's commercial stations — many of which are owned by conglomerates based in Las Vegas and Cincinnati — it served its listeners well with local church services, community forums and, of course, zydeco.

But when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2006, the small local station rose to the occasion. Staying on the air throughout the storm and its aftermath, the community-based station was uniquely situated to provide essential public-safety information. KOCZ broadcasts helped coordinate grassroots-led aid efforts, providing information for evacuees seeking shelter and services.

Most Americans haven't had a chance to hear one of these hyperlocal, noncommercial stations run by community organizations, churches, temples or schools. For communities lucky enough to have them, LPFM stations provide what is in many cases the only outlet for vibrant regional music scenes or cultural groups that have been pushed out of one-size-fits-all commercial radio. A shining example in the northwest is KPCN in Woodburn, Ore. — that state's only Latino-run radio station, broadcasting to the area's large immigrant population in Spanish and other Central American languages.

The FCC began licensing LPFM stations in 2002, after widespread consolidation of radio ownership had seriously reduced the amount of local in local radio. Local newsrooms and local DJs were giving way to cheaper, but blander, networkwide programming; minority-owned stations became endangered.

LPFM was intended to help correct these problems by providing an affordable way for diverse local churches and community groups to access a slice of the public airwaves.

LPFM was nearly stopped before it got started.

Big-radio owners didn't want to share the air with these new neighbors — especially if the new stations could provide authentically local services that had been cut back at many commercial stations. An army of industry lobbyists descended upon Congress to oppose LPFM, arguing that the tiny new stations would cause "interference" with much-larger existing stations.

That argument doesn't pass the smell test — it's like saying an iPod would cause interference with a bank of air-raid sirens.

Nevertheless, the lobbyists' deceptive tactics (including a studio-produced CD "demonstration" of radio interference) convinced lawmakers to scale back plans for democratizing the airwaves. Congress allowed only a limited number of LPFM stations to launch experimentally, while the FCC was told to study the interference issue again.

When the FCC invited initial applications for the new community stations, organizations across the country responded enthusiastically. In Washington state alone, 69 churches, community groups and schools applied for the coveted licenses. Most applications were rejected, as there were only a limited number of slots available.

Luckier applicants are now providing local, noncommercial programming to communities across the state, including Spokane, Olympia, Fall City, Lopez Island and several coastal towns.

The FCC went back to the drawing table as instructed, and hired independent researchers to re-examine the interference issue. Not surprisingly, the results of that 2006 study showed that LPFM poses no threat to existing radio stations.

The time is overdue for Congress to right its earlier wrong — and to pass an uncontroversial new law expanding LPFM across the country. The Local Community Radio Act already enjoys bipartisan support. Senate backers include Maria Cantwell and John McCain. In the House of Representatives, the bill is supported by Washington Democrat Jay Inslee and by Washington Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

However, the bill won't become law without more House support — and without a vote. Congressman Inslee should use his position on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet to make sure the Local Community Radio Act doesn't get left behind this year.

Jonathan Lawson is Executive Director of Reclaim the Media, and an organizer of the Northwest Community Radio Network.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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