|FCC To Open Opportunity To Apply For Last FM Radio Channels: No Progressives Interested
My head sunk into my hands in disappointment after the third email I received from progressives urging me contact Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors concerning a boycott over the Sandra Fluke controversy. This is a classic page out of the progressive strategy playbook.
Fruitless reactionary pot-shots at the conservative media, the bread and butter of the progressive media strategy, is one of the original reasons I helped co-start the nonprofit Common Frequency. The organization’s goal is to help community and student groups take back the airwaves by starting local educational community radio stations. But since its start, it has been a source of frustration from one sobering truth: progressives don’t want to own radio stations.
Long ago the FCC reserved the lower end of the FM dial for non-commercial, educational use. Radio licenses under 92.1 FM are completely free from the federal government to any educational non-profit. This is where you find NPR and college radio. But in the last few decades somebody else has been the primary beneficiary of these free radio channels—religious broadcasters. In fact, religious broadcasters own roughly half of all “educational” FM full power licenses, followed by Public Radio’s 30% percent. College radio consumes 13%, while independent community radio checks-in at about 4%.
Religious radio is not some fringe medium—it is mainstream. According to Barna Group, one in six Americans listens to religious radio on a weekly basis. Take for instance two religious radio groups out of the myriad—Educational Media Foundation (KLOVE/AIR-1) retains roughly 650 FCC FM licenses, and the Calvary churches across the US own a combined 620 licenses. Now compare this with all the non-NPR/college independent community radio licensees, which equals roughly 150 full power non-commercial licenses (excluding translators).
In 2007 the FCC opened an opportunity for nonprofits to apply for some of the last large full power noncommercial channels. I saw this as the golden opportunity for local communities to take back their airwaves. I assumed progressives and indymedia fanatics would be ecstatic of the prospect. I was completely wrong. First, Common Frequency gave its best pitch to Democrats, and Progressive PACS for outreach assistance—no interest. We went on to alert PEG (Public access, Educational or Governmental cable channels); surely local cable access channel staffs knew what we were talking about. Out of 275 PEG services located in open FM channel areas, less than ½ of one percent pursued applying for a FM license. Ok, maybe colleges would be interested in a broadcast license—I mean, “college radio”, right? Nope.
We had one shot left—open-minded religious groups. Churches salivate as the chance of running a radio station. Ask an evangelistic organization if they want a station and they immediately ask “How many can we have?” Approaching some of the thousand Unitarian Universalist congregations nationwide I just couldn’t believe it. UU’s were the least responsive to apply than anyone we approached.
So, to no surprise, of the roughly 3500 radio station applications submitted to the FCC in 2007, 71.4% of them were religious in nature, 12.6% community (nonprofits/student/college/Native American), 10.6% public radio, and 5.4% other. Of the 12.6% community, a smaller percentage made up those with activist focus. A third of all community radio FCC permit grants in the US from the 2007 filing opportunity were from four states that we did outreach in.
A 2010 Pew survey found that local and national television news were the top sources of news for 78% of Americans. It is obvious—media determines public opinion. It is nearly impossible to win popular support for any certain ideology without representation in the media. The progressive response up to this point, however, is a passive three-point strategy:
First is to pursue policy analysis, criticize, document, make movies, write books, etc about entities like Fox News, AM talk stations, and even NPR. While these are essential educational treatises, this has, for the most part, brought enlightenment to people that are already convinced the media is biased.
Second is to submit their grievances of imbalanced viewpoints in media to the government, boycott corporations, write petitions, or stand with a sign on the street. To this day, this approach is like patching leaks on a sinking ship.
The third progressive strategy is the media buy. The progressive leadership urges their constituency to donate money to buy a television commercial or newspaper ad to sway public opinion after the damage has been done. Progressives then give conservative media corporations money to run thirty-second spots; the media companies then turn around and use that money to lobby and produce 24-hour-a-day programming to sway their audience the other direction.
So there is no long-term progressive media strategy. There is a short-term strategy, which is to play defense on a daily basis. Nowadays this means closely averting a complete crisis in a Senate vote by nudging its core constituency in blue states for petition-signing and money. But did it occur to anyone that the meltdown is a direct result of biased information being fed to the public via the media, which then in turn shapes regulation?
Recently the FCC has indicated that they want to open a filing opportunity for local non-profits to apply for free low power FM (LPFM) channels in September 2012. Don’t let the words “low power” deceive you. These are FM frequencies in major urban cities that can cover hundreds of thousands of people.
These are the last open FM channels in urban areas. In our increasingly politically-divided climate, we need local nonprofits to apply for these channels for democratic purposes—free speech, access, diversity, local music, local debate, and local matters. Not liberal, not conservative, but the dialog, localism, community, and diversity that the FCC refuses to assert on the corporate broadcasters who dominate the people’s airwaves. My question is, who is going to step up to the table in our communities to make this happen?
The churches are lining up for these radio channels have their voices heard in their communities. Although I believe in free speech, many churches only want to broadcast the church’s views, and not allow access to the other 99% of community viewpoints. That’s what the media is missing.
We have the tools now to change the media in a good way. We can make that change if there are local groups can cast aside their political bias for the sake of creating a forum for real community debate.