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.