Bid To Revive Community Radio Stalls In Senate

For the past decade, a coalition of advocacy groups has been asking Congress to let hundreds of new community radio stations go on the air. Supporters of the idea — from the Christian Coalition and Sen. John McCain, to Move On and Sen. Maria Cantwell — say the new stations would do wonders for communities from coast to coast. But the bill to expand community radio is currently stalled in the Senate, the victim of anonymous holds by two or more senators, and supporters worry that even with bipartisan support, the bill may once again die without an up-or-down vote.

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Thousands of new voices could soon hit radio airwaves across the country, that's if the Senate takes up and passes a community radio bill in its lame duck session.

The measure could increase the number of noncommercial stations broadcasting in the U.S. by nearly a quarter. Media reform advocates say the new stations could do wonders for political and civic discourse, but as Rick Karr reports, the bill won't do anything until it clears a major hurdle in the Senate.

RICK KARR: A few weekends ago, dozens of people came to downtown Hudson, New York, to build a new community radio station.

(Soundbite of electric saw)

KARR: They cut lumber for studio tables and soundproofing baffles, they screwed together racks to hold broadcasting equipment, and they learned the best way to strip the insulation off of audio cables.

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah, I just - what I do is I just score the edge of the rubber and then sort of twist it back and forth.

KARR: They were all volunteers working to get WGXC on the air. The station's filling a void for nearly 75,000 people in Columbia and Greene counties.

Greene County legislator Bill Lawrence says the area used to have a commercial radio station that actually reported local news.

Mr. BILL LAWRENCE (Legislator, Greene County, New York): Back when I first became a legislator in the early '80s, we had great reporting, investigative reporting actually, and I thought they did a good job of doing both sides of a story. We lost it. They went regional, and we've sort of lost that local input.

KARR: Long story short, San Antonio-based Clear Channel Communications bought the station and cut local programming.

Lawrence has volunteered as a co-host of the new station's morning show. And in case you're thinking he's some kind of crunchy, touchy-feely hippie, he's a Republican. WGXC's general manager Galen Joseph-Hunter is not, and she says that's the point.

Ms. GALEN JOSEPH-HUNTER (General Manager, WGXC): He and I couldn't disagree more politically. But he approaches his point of view with respect for others and with humor. And hopefully everyone on the station will have those qualities.

KARR: Joseph-Hunter admits that perfect bipartisan cooperation on the air may be a bit of a utopian dream. But the idea that neighbors can get along if they're all on the air together is at the heart of the push for more community radio in the U.S.

Activists have been asking for more licenses for community stations for more than a decade. And just as WGXC has supporters from across the political spectrum, the nationwide movement has support from liberals and conservatives.

Michele Combs is senior spokesperson for the Christian Coalition.

Ms. MICHELE COMBS (Senior Spokesperson, Christian Coalition): I think that this is really a family issue. It's affecting a lot of good churches and a lot of good schools out there and a lot of people who this is how they get their news, and this is how they get their information.

KARR: Supporters on the left tend to cite what new stations could do for immigrants or underprivileged inner-city communities. Advocates on all sides of the political spectrum see community radio as an antidote to media industry consolidation.

Senator MARIA CANTWELL (Democrat, Washington): And that level of consolidation yields a lot of clout.

KARR: Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington is co-sponsor of a bill that would let as many as 1,000 new community stations go on the air, but it's stuck. It passed the House with bipartisan support, and her co-sponsor in the Senate is Arizona Republican John McCain.

But a couple of anonymous senators have used parliamentary procedure to effectively veto its chances for an up or down vote. Cantwell says it's yet another example of minority rule on Capitol Hill, which happens to lots of bills that have bipartisan support.

Sen. CANTWELL: A lot of these bills would pass 98 to two, or, you know, 95 to five, if we got rid of what are called secret holds, where one or two members hold something up really on behalf of some special interest.

KARR: The special interest in this case is the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade group for commercial radio. It's been opposing an increase in the number of community stations for more than a decade.

An NAB spokesperson declined to comment on whether the group was behind the secret holds in the Senate. He did say the NAB is worried that hundreds of new stations might cause interference with the signals of existing stations.

Cantwell says rigorous testing has shown that the trade group's objections are unwarranted. Besides, she says, the need for the new stations outweighs the concerns of broadcasting conglomerates.

Sen. CANTWELL: What my constituents, and I think many Americans, want to see is a diversity of voices and an array of information being distributed from radio stations that can have a very, very unique perspective.

KARR: Supporters of WGXC in Hudson, New York, say that's what they want from their community station.

Unidentified People: Ten, nine, eight...

KARR: After they built the station's studio, they counted down to the moment when it hit the airwaves.

Unidentified People: Five, four, three, two, one.

(Soundbite of applause)

KARR: Now, it's up to the U.S. Senate to decide whether or not other community stations can throw the switches on their transmitters.

Unidentified Woman #1: Transmission.

KARR: If the bill doesn't pass this month, Cantwell says she'll introduce it again next year.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr.

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