Friday, March 21, 2008

Radio: Race for the Last Free Spectrum

In October 2007, thousands of groups and media organizations applied to the Federal Communications Commission for licenses to build new community radio stations. After much anticipation, the FCC had lifted a seven-year freeze on filings for Noncommercial Educational (NCE) radio licenses. Among the applicants, including National Public Radio and numerous religious broadcasters, were more than 350 local community groups across the country.

In hopes of leveling the playing field, several progressive media organizations formed the Radio for People Coalition, coordinating the efforts of Prometheus Radio, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB), Public Radio Capitol, Pacifica Radio, Common Frequency, Free Press and the Future of Music Coalition. Working together, they helped more than 200 groups apply in almost every state and US territory.

Since last year, the Commission has processed over 800 applications which were either granted as "singletons" – not mutually-exclusive with other applications, or dismissed because the applicant exceeded a 5 station filing cap. Despite pressure from NPR, Minnesota Public Radio, and religious broadcasters for high limits, the FCC restricted the number of noncommercial FM applications that could be filed by one party.

More than 260 applicants who want licenses in mutually exclusive areas have been asked to tell the FCC by early April whether they anticipate reaching a settlement or “share time” agreement. If they don’t, the Commission's staff will apply a point system to determine which should be preferred and granted. Other mutually exclusive applications will be handled at a later date.

A full-day intensive workshop for those who applied will be held at the upcoming NFCB conference in Atlanta. Among the speakers will be Ursula Reudenberg, Affiliates Coordinator for Pacifica Radio and coordinator of the network’s Radio South Campaign. Working with Atlanta-based Pacifica affiliate WRFG (Radio Free Georgia, 89.3 FM) and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a rural civil rights organization with bases in Atlanta and rural areas, the Radio South initiative resulted in more than 20 completed applications, covering almost every southern state.

The federal government has periodically granted NCE frequencies, located between 88.1 and 91.9 on the FM dial, to nonprofit organizations free of charge. But according to FCC attorney John Crigler, who helped community radio applicants, this is the last of the free spectrum, "and this filing window will have social consequences. It is a last opportunity to have a fight about values and how public spectrum ought to be used," he said.

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