Low Power to the People

By | August 9th, 2011 | 1 Comment

It is a paradox of the our time: The tools of media are unprecedentedly accessible — anyone with an internet connection can start broadcasting via blog, podcast, Twitter, or various other outlets within minutes — even as the vast bulk of the media itself has fallen into the iron grip of a few conglomerates. Quoth Josh Stearns’ piece, “Take Back the Media”, in the current issue of Orion Magazine:

In the U.S., years of runaway media consolidation have diminished the diversity of voices on the airwaves, gutted our nation’s newsrooms, and wrested more and more media out of the hands of the people. Just a week before the demonstrations in Egypt began, the Obama administration approved one of the largest media mergers in a generation. Comcast, America’s largest residential cable and internet company, now controls NBCUniversal, one of the nation’s most popular news and entertainment studios. The combination of production and distribution into one megamedia giant means, for many of us, that one company will have unprecedented control over what we see and how we see it, online, on cable, and over the air.

Such developments should worry anyone who appreciates the Fourth Estate’s crucial role in a functioning democracy, not to mention in a dysfunctional democracy like ours that is coping (ineptly) with monumental fiscal, political, and economic woes. But media consolidation is only one aspect of the story. The counter-narrative is that the internet has empowered individuals to chip away at the monolithic media industry, a quintessential for-better-and-worse development that is accelerating the demise of both worthy big-city newspapers and worthless oil-rich tyrants.

While blogs and Twitter have garnered a fair share of headlines for their role in the upheaval of the 21st-Century media industry, another potentially game-changing medium remains broadly unsung. Low Power FM (LPFM) stations are nonprofit radio stations that broadcast at low wattage within a short radius (several miles or so depending on, for example, topography). Local radio activists champion LPFM stations as an antidote to the elephantiasis afflicting mainstream media in the form of the Comcast-NBCUniversal merger and its ilk. Such stations, organizations like the Prometheus Radio Project say, transcend their literal power shortage by amplifying the volume of independent voices that would otherwise be drowned out in their communities.

Leah Weston is one such voice. A member of the progressive activist collective Emerge Miami, WVUM DJ (on-air name: Leah Swanky), and all-too-infrequent Beached Miami contributor, Weston is hoping to launch an LPFM station in Miami, provided the FCC ends up giving our fair city a license (or several). While the chances of that happening are better than ever since Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act last December, there is still a lot standing in the way. For one thing, Miami is a competitive market, and commercial and even public radio stations aren’t necessarily eager to welcome LPFMs onto “their” dial. Then there’s the fact that the FCC is still digesting the Local Community Radio Act and figuring out how to dispense LPFM licenses. There is no guarantee Miami will get one.

But the what-ifs are not deterring Weston from laying the groundwork for Miami’s first LPFM. On Tuesday night (i.e., tonight) at Sweat Records, she will be giving a presentation about LPFM and its future in Miami for anyone who wants to listen, brainstorm, and take action. It is a move born out of frustration with Miami’s existing media outlets.

“Our public media favors either 24-hour music programming or news that doesn’t touch on local issues very well, or very meaningfully,” Weston says. “So I think this would be a good way for people who are doing progressive things in Miami to actually broadcast from the same platform and strengthen people’s knowledge of what’s happening here.”

As a possible model, Weston points to BBOX, a new Brooklyn-based station that broadcasts locally sourced content out of a red shipping crate in a farmer’s market. Programming includes interviews, call-in shows, street journalism, radio documentary, DJs, and live music performances.

Weston envisions a similar mishmash of Miami-sourced content on her own LPFM. It’s a lofty aim, with obstacles at both the local and federal levels, but she is confident the Miami dial will ultimately get a bit more crowded with low-power, high-volume community stations.

“The amazing thing about radio is that it’s pretty rudimentary,” she says. “You can set up a bare bones operation with a relatively small budget.”

To learn more about it, head over to Sweat Records at 7 p.m. Tuesday night.

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