Low Power to the People
An open letter to Senator Patrick Leahy
Dear Senator Leahy: This isn’t how I envisioned approaching you. I had hoped we could speak mano a mano, journalist to legislator, constituent to constituen … tor? You know — talk like real people. Unfortunately, after receiving a brief, albeit surprisingly prompt, response from your office to my opening salvo two weeks ago, the line went dead, as it were. I haven’t heard a peep from your peeps since.
But it’s cool. I understand.
The world is a scary place at the moment. And we, the good people of Vermont, have charged you — well, and Pete and Bernie, too — with standing watch over our beloved little corner of the globe. But, come on. You’re our champion, our knight in shining armor. You, sir, are the Batman to our Gotham shire. (BTW, your cameo in The Dark Knight? The bomb! But I digress.)
The point is, you’re a busy guy. And I am a lowly music journalist. Last week, I actually used the word “boobies” in a column. So, no, I’m not high on your callback list. I get it.
But therein lies the source of my frustration, and the crux of why I am publicly appealing to your good graces. What I’m asking you to do wouldn’t take but a minute of your time, yet it could positively impact the daily lives of millions of Americans. So here it is: I want you to hotline the Local Community Radio Act, which would lift outdated restrictions on low-power FM (LPFM) radio and restore community radio to, well, the community.
A little backstory…
As I’m sure you recall, in 2000, the Federal Communications Commission voted to broadly issue licenses for LPFM radio stations. At the time, it was a coup for communities around the country, which had seen the 1996 Telecommunications Act essentially turn the length of their local radio dials into Clear Channel strip malls.
Not surprisingly, the National Association of Broadcasters, a powerful (read: evil) lobby group that acts on behalf of commercial TV and radio broadcasters, put up a stink. The NAB lobbied Congress to place a cap on the number of LPFM licenses it would grant, claiming that signals from these renegade micro-stations would interfere with major broadcasts. They weren’t alone. National Public Radio shared the NAB’s concerns and actually joined forces to support the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act (RBPA), which neutered the FCC’s initial LPFM ruling. Strange bedfellows, eh?
In 2003, you and your congressional pals commissioned the not-for-profit MITRE Corporation — aka the engineers engineers call — to investigate whether LPFMs, broadcasting at a miniscule 100 watts, would actually present any interference to megawatt broadcasts. MITRE concluded that the NAB’s protests amounted to little more than, um, static. The analogy you commonly see used in pro-LPFM circles is a lit match stealing radiance from a floodlight.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. The RBPA limited the low-power spectrum with something called “third adjacency restrictions.” In layperson’s terms, this means that low-power stations can only operate on every fourth click of the FM dial, instead of every third, which limits the number of frequencies available to LPFM stations. As a result, LPFMs have essentially been banished to less-crowded bandwidths in rural areas — such as Vermont.
Bringing it all back around, the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA) would remove those restrictions and open up more FM bandwidth to low-power stations everywhere. Still with me? Let’s take a trivia break.
How many LPFM stations operate within the top 50 largest media markets in the country?
One. Bonus points if you knew that those markets, combined, have 160 million listeners.
By contrast, how many LPFM stations would you guess Vermont, and its comparatively meager 650,000 listeners, has?
We have 11.
As with so many of the day’s pressing social issues, Vermonters are ahead of the curve when it comes to taking advantage of our public airwaves. (By the way, they are all public airwaves, owned by We, the People. Really.) So to understand why the LCRA would be a good thing, the country need look no further than the Green Mountains.
Vermont’s 11 LPFM stations represent true and increasingly rare localism on the FM dial. Just look at small-town stations such as Enosburgh’s WEVT-LP, which broadcasts from, get this, the Dr. B.J. Kendall Center for Rural Technology and Environmental Studies. Awesome. We have Warren’s WMRW-LP, which claims it’s “as independent as a hog on ice,” whatever that means. And, of course, there’s that beacon of Queen City eclecticism, Burlington’s WOMM-LP The Radiator. Vermont’s LPFM stations are telling reflections of the listenerships they serve.
We also have stations for very specific communities, such as WJPL-LP, operated by Seventh-day Adventists in Barre. Heck, there are two Vermont LPFMs devoted solely to highway reports. And we’re really just scratching the surface of how low-power radio could be used, in Vermont and nationwide. Imagine Somali refugee radio in Burlington’s Old North End. Or Mexican immigrant radio in Arizona … er, New Mexico.
These stations truly become part of the fabric of their communities. I recently spoke with Larry Bloch, the cofounder and program coordinator at WVEW-LP 107.7 FM, Brattleboro Community Radio. He claims that his station has had about 500 DJs cycle through since they began broadcasting in 1998 — originally as unlicensed Radio Free Brattleboro, and then legally as BCR in 2005. Not bad for a town of 12,000.
Bloch would like to see “community radio” restored to actual communities, rather than stations existing solely at the whim of the FCC, as they do now.
“Communities should be able to decide what their stations will be,” he says. He longs for the day when local communities around the country have that opportunity. Passage of the LCRA, while not a cure-all, would be a big step in that direction.
Right now, the LCRA is in a holding pattern, having cleared every hurdle but one. It passed out of the House by voice vote in December 2009. In March, it was reported out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. All that is left is the Senate vote.
That’s where you come in, Senator.
Back in 2005, you were actually a cosponsor on the original version of the Local Community Radio Act, along with current cosponsors Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and, get this, maverick John McCain (R-AZ). No kidding. The bill has since undergone a few tweaks, but the spirit is intact. And opposition, minimal in the Senate to begin with, has all but evaporated. Even the NAB, to a large degree, has backed off.
Of that 2005 legislation, you said, “This bill will open up the airwaves to truly local broadcasting.” That is still true. All it needs now is someone to give it a nudge forward in the Senate. Someone who understands how low-power radio has benefited his constituents. Someone who will stick up for the little guy. Someone like you, Senator Leahy.