New law could foster community radio boom

PHILADELPHIA Sat Jan 29, 2011 7:20pm EST

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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A tiny nonprofit organization operating a national campaign from a basement for 12 years to get more non-commercial radio stations approved, may soon see its dream come true.

On January 4, the nonprofit Prometheus and other groups seeking to diversify media ownership, scored a victory when President Barack Obama signed into law the Local Community Radio Act. It directs the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the national airwaves, to allow more low-power stations access to the FM radio dial.

Once implemented, the law is expected to result in as many 2,000 new stations, beginning in about 2013.

That would more than double the approximately 800 low-power stations currently in operation, compared with around 13,000 commercial stations nationwide. About a third of commercial stations are owned by half a dozen corporations, led by Clear Channel Communications, Inc., with almost 900.

An increase in the number of community stations could mean more coverage of local issues such as school board meetings, high school football games, health, education, local music, and literacy campaigns. It also might allow more in-depth discussions rather than the sound bites on most commercial radio, said Brandy Doyle, Policy Director for Prometheus.

"It makes a lot more room on a medium (FM radio) that a lot of people still use," said Prometheus founder Pete Tridish.

In the unreliably-heated basement of Calvary United Methodist Church on West Philadelphia's Baltimore Avenue, the Prometheus's offices are hung with banners from its demonstrations in support of non-commercial radio. They represent the more than a decade the group fought for the law.

Since about half the existing low-power FM stations are owned by churches, some of the new material is also likely to be religious.

Backers of the new law spanned the religious and political spectrum including the Christian Coalition, a conservative group, and the Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as liberal groups including MoveOn.org and Common Cause.

Whatever the effect of the new law, mainstream stations are not likely to change their programing, and clearly will not be losing advertisers to new non-commercial broadcasters, said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the commercial sector.

Wharton predicted most of the new stations will set up in rural or suburban areas but not in major cities where radio dials are already crowded.

"There's serious congestion on the air waves in most urban markets," Wharton said, noting that up to 270 million Americans listen to commercial radio every week, a figure that includes National Public Radio but not low-power stations.

He said the commercial sector is mostly concerned to prevent signal interference by any new stations with existing broadcasters.

(Reporting by Jon Hurdle, editing by Greg McCune)

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