The History and Future of Hyper-Local Radio

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Some day soon, Congress may pass the Local Community Radio Act, a piece of legislation that will allow a couple thousand new low-power FM radio stations to go on the air.

The new broadcasters would be much smaller than the stations that dominate the market now, and by law, they'd be noncommercial. Low-power FM (LPFM) transmitters operate at 100 watts or less (drawing about as much power as an incandescent lightbulb), which means they reach only a few miles and are truly local in scope. This means these stations have the potential to occupy a very different niche from large-scale networked broadcasting. Mom-and-pop LPFM stations range widely in terms of programming. KAQU-LP in Sitka, Alaska, broadcasts whale sounds from an underwater mic; various school districts and churches have LPFMs, covering religious, municipal and highly local topics like school board meetings; and other stations provide the sorts of arts and culture programming that have been drowned out in the wave of homogenized content brought about by consolidation of for-profit media companies.

Part of what is so interesting about media made by community members is its potential to challenge what we think radio "is." Our present-day understanding of radio has to a great degree crystallized around the massive network configuration -- both commercial and noncommercial, like National Public Radio. Yet LPFM shows that technology's contours can shift over time based on ongoing renegotiation between players like regulators, corporations, advocates and everyday citizens. Far from being a moribund medium, radio can have an alternate future -- one that actually reawakens long-forgotten debates that were "settled" shortly after the dawn of broadcasting.

In fact, radio provides a somewhat rare opportunity to think about technological change over time, and in many ways the issues surrounding it now are not so different from those present at the dawn of broadcasting in the 1920s. Then as now, a large part of what defined the technology was decided through heated contestation between groups with competing visions for its use: Should radio stations be networked and strive to reach a wide and dispersed audience? Should they be commercial and profitable, or operate on a non-profit or community-subsidy model? Should they serve the "public interest", whatever that is construed to be? Should certain forms of content be privileged over others? Should radio be made by professional elites or by neighbors and community members? And the question that hovers above them all: Who gets to decide?

The history (and future) of radio shows us that these contests don't necessarily settle down once and for all. Though the commercial network model was largely ascendant by the 1930s (and became much more concentrated after The Telecommunications Act of 1996), advocates for other uses mounted challenges on many occasions, and succeeded in carving out some room for alternative models more than once. Most recently, in 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started issuing licenses for "low-power FM" (LPFM) radio stations; this represented a marked change, as no new low-watt licenses had been issued since 1978. This shift in policy didn't come out of nowhere, though. In fact, the FCC was responding to not only pressure from advocates of "microradio" (as it was often called during the 1990s), who publicized the issue through high-profile pirate broadcasting and court cases, but the FCC's own observation of the effect of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which left no doubt about the chilling effect of corporate media consolidation on localism. 

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Why would we even want hyper-local FM stations? FM can still do a lot of things, even some that other media technologies can't. It's easily accessible to listeners, cheap and easy to program, and a great tool for people to reach out to others in their neighborhoods or towns with local, original content. It's resilient, too -- in moments of tragedy and disaster like Hurricane Katrina, radio was a far more durable and reliable communications infrastructure than networked computing, not least because receivers and transmitters can run off batteries and generators. Even an apparent disadvantage of radio -- the scarcity of airtime -- can be a plus, in that it prompts groups to make thoughtful decisions about how to use their stations.

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