This Is the Future of Radio.

The FCC wants to modernize AM radio, which has lost listeners in recent years. Can it work?
by | December 2013

You may not listen as much as you once did, but something very interesting is about to happen on your radio dial (not that anyone has a dial anymore). The airwaves, which changed markedly in the last couple of decades, could do so again. Since 1990, 250 local AM stations have disappeared while the number of FM stations has almost doubled. Meanwhile, fledging Low Power FM (LPFM) stations have taken root in communities across the country.

In the coming months, hundreds of local community nonprofits will find out if their applications for licenses to run a new generation of 100-watt LPFM stations have been approved. At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission is taking a fresh look at AM radio with the intent of shoring up the country’s oldest broadcast service. Among the FCC’s five draft proposals is one that would allow AM programmers to apply for licenses for FM translators, where the audience remains relatively large.

Both initiatives are once-in-a-generation opportunities. The last FCC study of AM radio was a quarter century ago, when it showed that the hours people spent listening to radio had shifted away from AM, dropping to 30 percent from 50 percent. By 2010, that number had fallen to 17 percent overall and only 4 percent among young Americans. But AM radio defenders argue that the band still matters for at least three reasons:

  • Reliability. In emergencies, transistor radios work when cellphones, Internet service and power go down.
  • Ubiquity. People who don’t have Internet access do have radios.
  • Equality. Most female- and minority-owned radio stations are on the AM band and many AM stations serve ethnic and multilingual audiences.

Those last two reasons also motivated community activists to lobby for a second round of LPFM stations to be licensed to local, nonprofit groups. The push for more LPFM stations began originally as a response to the consolidation of ownership of commercial radio stations following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. An initial licensing window opened at the turn of this century, spawning new community stations from Opelousas, La., to Spokane, Wash.

While the music these and hundreds of other LPFM stations play is eclectic, their politics is similar. There is no ideological acid test in the licensing process, but what the LPFM activists have in common is a progressive worldview. Many LPFM stations carry locally produced and syndicated programming about ethnic and sexual minorities, feminism, the environment, social justice and income inequality.

The number of licensed LPFM stations could double, but it depends on how many can make it over the engineering, logistical, financial and organizational hurdles that prevented almost a third ofLPFMs in the original licensing window from ever hitting the air.

Still, there are at least three good reasons to pay attention to the community activism around these low power stations. For the first time, LPFM is urban. The FCC has opened up the country’s largest cities to LPFM applicants over the objections of commercial (and public) stations in large markets, which feared potential technical interference and audience fragmentation. Second, at a time when citizen engagement is seen as antidote to toxic politics, LPFM is radio by and for engaged, dedicated groups of like-minded people who care about where they live and how decisions are made. Finally, the expansion of LPFM and the potential simulcast of AM stations to FM frequencies could infuse the passion of podcasting to terrestrial radio.

At a minimum, these new forms of local radio can add a wider variety of voices that can actually be heard by their neighbors.

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