Put local radio back on Congress’ radar

Published 11:16 pm Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Nine years ago, when my family lost our radio business, our community lost the voice it had known for 46 years.

On May 15, 2000, WABN’s broadcast was silenced. When Congress and the Federal Communications Commission deregulated ownership of stations nationally and locally, Bristol Broadcasting Inc. — a group that already owned 15 radio stations across Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky — stepped in and acquired WABN at less than half of its appraised value.

When the news went public, Abingdon residents and other citizens across the state and beyond were outraged. Objecting to the license transfer, 534 people wrote letters to the FCC, 1,137 signed a petition, and many others called and emailed FCC commissioners.

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Congressman Rick Boucher, representing our 9th District, and other political supporters also lent their voices to the cause, all to no avail. Left with no radio station, my family, like many other small owners, gave up the dream of making a living in community-oriented radio.

In May 2000, we signed the transfer of license and the deed of trust for the physical property, leaving the station to a group that now owns 21 stations.

What happened to our station has happened to thousands of stations across the country. Localism in staffing and community programming is unjustly sacrificed to economies of scale, with programming broadcast remotely from distant corporate studios.

Our case was the direct result of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which deregulated television and radio ownership across the country and paved the way for large-scale consolidation of local media.

Technology allowed these stations to create the illusion of localism by pawning piped-in content off as local news updates. While these tricks made a few people rich, they deprived countless communities of their identities.

Nearly a decade after we transferred our license, Congressman Boucher is leading an effort to open up the nation’s airwaves to more local radio broadcasting.

On June 11, Representative Boucher, Chairman of the prestigious Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, held the first hearings on a proposal that would lift the current restrictions allowing for the licensing of thousands of 100-watt, non-commercial community radio stations across the country.

The proposal would open up the airwaves to women, minorities, and small family operations like ours, who lack the corporate clout of large groups like Clear Channel, but who live and work in the communities that they serve.

The recent years of media consolidation have shut these small local radio stations out of the media landscape. Southwest Virginia, in particular, would have the opportunity to apply for these non-commercial educational licenses.

Following the Congressional Hearing, the coalition of Low Power FM supporters, including the Future of Music Coalition, Free Press, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Consumer’s Union, the United Church of Christ and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, expected an immediate mark-up and committee vote, which so far has not happened.

It’s important that our elected officials bring the public airwaves back to the public. We need to create space for vibrant local radio on the airwaves, before other radio stations share the fate of WABN.