Radio Free America

It's an unusually hot August afternoon in small-town Florence, Massachusetts, and a ragtag group has gathered under a tent behind the Florence Community Center. They're participants in the 10th annual Grassroots Radio Conference, and they've come from all over the country to build a new low-power community radio station for the area.

People wander in and out of the tent as the afternoon plenary session opens, but then a man approaches the microphone, and suddenly everyone is paying attention. He isn't exactly an imposing figure -- he's rather short, and his neatly pressed, button-down shirt is hardly eye-catching -- but as he begins to speak, he's greeted by thunderous applause.

“He's like a rock star around here,” one conference participant said to me earlier in the day, pointing the man out in a crowd at lunchtime. Indeed, for those in community radio, “rock star” is a bit of an understatement for Romeo Ramirez and his organization, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

The coalition -- a community-based advocacy organization of Latino, Haitian, and Mayan migrant workers who toil in the tomato and citrus fields of southwest Florida -- first made waves in 2001, when it organized a boycott against Taco Bell, one of the national restaurant chains that purchases tomatoes from the workers' employers, and demanded that the company improve wages and working conditions for the Immokalee tomato pickers.

The campaign against Taco Bell picked up steam over the next couple of years, as activists and university students across the country joined the workers in their boycott. But there was another ally, often smaller and more easily overlooked, that also played an important role in the Immokalee campaign: noncommercial and low-power community radio stations.

From the beginning, independent, community-based radio stations picked up on the campaign and used the air to organize support for the boycott. And in December 2003, the Prometheus Radio Project -- a small, nonprofit made up of former radio-pirates-turned-media-advocates -- organized a band of volunteers to travel to Immokalee, Florida, for a weekend to help the workers set up their own low-power radio station, WCIW. Since then, says Ramirez, the station, which broadcasts in multiple languages, has helped to unite and organize the diverse group of workers and has provided a platform for reaching out to political allies across the country.

Just this March, Taco Bell officials agreed to meet the Immokalee workers' demands, which included a direct pay increase to the workers that more than doubles their current wages. It was a moment of triumph for the migrant workers. But it was also a galvanizing moment for media-reform advocates who see the Immokalee workers as a prime example of the difference that can be made by locally controlled media, especially low-power radio stations. And this fall, with a bill in the Senate and another one soon to be introduced in the House that would expand the number of frequencies and regulatory protections available to low-power stations, advocates are hoping that stories like the Immokalee workers' will also raise public awareness and help legislators understand that low-wattage stations are about a lot more than just radio.

Low-power radio stations are the most local form of community radio and are often run by volunteers producing their own unique shows. Broadcasting at 100 watts or less, stations usually only have a radius of about 3.5 miles. These tiny stations will never be able to compete with giants like Clear Channel, but that's precisely the point. By positioning itself as a local media supplement rather than a full-blown competitor, Low-Power FM, or LPFM, has been able to gain support from grass-roots organizers and legislators alike.

“This is really an effort to create connections between communities, and this is why legislators are responding to LPFM,” said Frannie Wellings, program manager for the media-advocacy group Free Press.

Low-power licenses were first introduced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2000, and the new category promised to open up hundreds of frequencies in urban, suburban, and rural areas alike. It was at this point that a number of major players -- most notably the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Public Radio (NPR) -- went to Congress claiming that the some of the new stations would sit too closely on the dial to full-power stations and would thus cause interference.

Despite opposition from media-reform advocates and the FCC, Congress decided to restrict the number of frequencies open to the stations. The new regulations still allowed low-power stations to apply for FCC licenses, but they were prohibited from broadcasting on any frequency three clicks or fewer away from another station on the dial.

The decision eliminated about two-thirds of the frequencies formerly available to low-power stations, according to the Prometheus Radio Project. This move basically shut LPFM out of urban markets, most of which already have crowded dials, making it a largely rural phenomenon, said Peter Doyle, chief of the audio division of the FCC media bureau. Hundreds of new stations got the go-ahead, but most groups living in the top 150 radio markets got left behind.

Yet over the past several years, LPFM has managed to grow tremendously, both as a radio service and as a lobby, and this fall supporters are back on Capitol Hill, touting a new congressionally mandated study from the nonprofit MITRE Corporation -- which regularly conducts technical studies for the government -- that they claim shows that Congress can expand low-power stations to the third adjacent frequency without harming existing full-power stations. John McCain, Patrick Leahy, and Maria Cantwell have introduced a Senate bill into committee, and this fall, Representative Louise Slaughter is expected to present a House measure that would not only open up new frequencies for LPFM stations but also protect them from encroachment by full-power stations nearby, according to Hannah Sassaman of the Prometheus Radio Project. Right now, LPFM stations are not classified as “primary stations”; consequently, a full-power station that moves closer to an LPFM's broadcast area can legally use its signal. A number of LPFMs are thus threatened by full-power stations.

Despite the congressional support for the LPFM legislation, however, activists face many of the same challenges they did in 2000, particularly from the NAB and NPR, which, according to their spokespeople, continue to oppose the expansion of LPFM to the currently restricted frequencies. But this time, LPFM advocates find themselves part of a surprising coalition that may boost their leverage in Congress.

The media-reform movement has sparked a fruitful, if unlikely, partnership among progressive groups, small conservative churches, and even groups like the National Rifle Association, which chimed in with Prometheus to protest the FCC's highly publicized move in 2003 toward media-ownership deregulation. In an era marked by political polarization, both ends of the spectrum have found common ground in their struggle to get their communities -- as much as their political ideas -- onto the airwaves.

“We are trying to show the wealth of knowledge that exists within a community,” said Sakura Saunders, a volunteer with Prometheus. “The goal of this is not to project one singular message out there but to create radio that can be a locus for the community.”

This left-right coalition may prove especially important for the McCain and Slaughter bills this fall as they go up against large, well-funded interest groups like the NAB, said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project.

“NAB has a tremendous influence with congressional leadership, so it's going to be difficult for supporters of LPFM to persuade the Republican leadership not to block these bills,” Feld said. “But religious groups are coming to Washington to lobby, and that could influence the leadership as well.”

This partnership is hardly a foolproof one -- there are enough disagreements and tensions even within the progressive wing to dispel any romanticized notions that political partisanship is coming to an end -- and activists will most likely face significant challenges in Congress this fall. At the same time, activists say they hope legislators will be able to see, as with the Immokalee workers, what local radio can do for the larger community.

“This is a radio station, but it's also a dissent against the political establishment,” said Tim Scott, a board member with the low-power station Valley Free Radio in Northampton, Massachusetts. “What we're doing is inherently political. We are part of a bigger democracy movement.”

Alyson Zureick is a Prospect intern and a senior at Princeton University.

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