The future of democratic media may come down to a bunch of lawyers.
Twenty-five years after pirate radio aficionados and media activists pushed for and eventually won the Low Power Community Radio Act, the fate of hundreds of radio licenses is up in the air.
Almost 3,000 applications were filed for low-power radio stations in neighborhoods across the United States. Some were filed by long-established community groups, others by new groups that came together around the opportunity to operate a station and still others by church-based chain broadcasters.
One thousand six hundred seventy-two groups are fighting for 400 frequencies that represent the last new broadcast infrastructure the country may ever see.
Are they battling with their hands tied behind their backs? And what does their struggle mean for a media landscape where localism is becoming a quainter and quainter relic in the era of nonstop media consolidation?
The process for awarding licenses when there are multiple applicants for the same spot on the dial is anything but simple. While a points system implemented by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provides some rankings, for hundreds of "MX'ed" groups (in FCC lingo), the only way forward is to navigate complex time-sharing agreements or file petitions to knock their unqualified (mostly because they are not truly local) opponents out of eligibility.
These are not tasks for rookies.
Community organizations are mission-focused and often minimally staffed. While they may see the value a radio license could bring to their ongoing work, they didn't necessarily sign on for a crash course in telecommunications law. And one of the advantages of being a chain broadcaster is access to the resources of larger organizations.
You can see where this is going. Without some help from law schools and clinics, legal firm pro-bono departments and the few "movement" lawyers everyone depends on when they get into trouble, the good guys may not win.
Nobody fought for 25 years for 1,000 new radio stations that all sound the same.
As advocates Prometheus Radio Project put it:
"What we are seeing is not a move away from radio, but a move away from homogenous news sources. People seek information that they can participate in and is relevant to them within their social networks - community radio provides just that. The future of community radio will integrate broadcast and digital technologies to allow stations to be more accessible and participatory. With a cell phone and laptop, the whole community becomes a mobile studio. We are building a participatory media infrastructure for social change and community expression"
Nothing could be more needed, but without a mobilization - not of people in the streets, but of lawyers at their desks - it may not happen.
The FCC wants low-power radio to succeed as much as anyone. For an organization often maligned as being in the pockets of industry, the opening of the low-power radio window was a unique moment. But bureaucratic rules are bureaucratic roles, and everyone has to play by the rules of the game.
It would be sad if groups like the Tohono O'Odham Nation in San Xavier, Arizona, Causa Justa in Oakland, The Bakersfield Burrito Project, The Washington Peace Center in the capital, The United Workers Association in Baltimore, Art FM in Lousiville and The Islamic Center in Gulfport, Mississippi, get sliced out of a piece of the media pie. Voices like theirs are the exception rather than the rule.
But without a well-written petition to deny aimed at a shell opponent or a professionally crafted time-sharing agreement, that's exactly what will happen.
Media activism groups like the Committee on Democratic Communications of the National Lawyers Guild, Prometheus Radio Project and Media Alliance can direct donated or low-cost services to applicants in need. Template samples for petitions to deny and time-sharing agreements can be made available to law school students, clinics, firms and even recovering lawyers who want to help in the next few months to make broadcasting space open up.
The low-power radio movement argued that the wasted space between large radio licenses belongs to the people, not the corporations.
Hundreds of groups took the government at its word - that in this case, it agrees.
Now they need support to take their rightful place on the airwaves.