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Radio’s Fall – Part One: No Money, Mo’ Problems

Editor’s Note: Radioactive Gavin has collected more than 300 articles on radio and digital music over the past 3 months for Common Frequency. This is the first of a series of seven posts he will be contributing in the coming weeks, looking back at the end of a rough year in radio.

Conservatives crying “Defund NPR” at the top of their lungs might have gotten the most attention in 2010, but look beyond the headlines and it gets worse.

Nonprofit groups all over the country who hold FCC construction permits for new community stations are struggling to come up with the bucks to build.

The massive new contract for Ryan Seacrest is part of a dangerous trend perpetuated by Clear Channel that can only mean fewer net jobs in the industry. (Remember when Rush Limbaugh was given a $400M raise and Clear Channel chopped $400M from the rest of its payroll?)

Major cuts are coming to the BBC, following a frustrating few months highlighted by journalists going on strike. President Obama’s depressing “deficit commission” has recommended the US stop funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Telecommunications Facilities Program entirely by 2015.

The Pacifica Network is apparently on the brink of bankruptcy after six decades and the KPFA fight has turned allies into foes. Free Speech Radio News is threatening to shut down its daily operations despite endorsements from journalism advocates like author Bob McChesney.

Look to the fighting spirit of the Save KTRU movement if you like, but the ugly takeover story in Houston is a reminder of the grave situation student radio stations are struggling against nationwide, as cash-strapped university administrators see FM licenses as dollar signs.

At least college students have stations on the air to fight for. The dedicated volunteers in Salem, OR who want to launch KMUZ have found today’s economy much more difficult than expected.

The Radio For People Coalition knows of around 100 groups who applied along with KMUZ in 2007 and were granted permits, but are now facing mandatory FCC construction deadlines. Economic hardship is the key factor in almost every case. Sadly, the inspiring WGXC barnraising in Hudson, NY was a rare exception.

Including me, there are basically only four people in the country whose job descriptions include capacity-building support for new stations. Prometheus Radio Project, Common Frequency, Latino Public Radio Consortium and Native Public Media can’t do it all.

But radio is still the best communications technology for reaching the American people. It is free to listen, of course, and community radio provides citizens with access to the public airwaves, and opportunities to amplify voices underserved by NPR and Clear Channel.

According to Camille Lacapa at Native Public Media, only about a quarter of First Nations radio projects with construction permits are in “good” financial shape yet 16 are required to be on the air sometime in 2011. Reports vary about the exact numbers but it seems clear that with 500 recognized nations spread out across the land, every frequency counts.

Wannabe public service operations are facing the worst economy since the Great Depression.

Think about progressive folks trying to change the landscape in Red State America. Let’s take Boise, Idaho and Spokane, WA as examples. In a piece titled “Never a Better Time to Fund Noncommercial Radio,” my friends Jeff Abrams and Lupito Flores point out:

Boise and Spokane represent the Northwest’s third and fourth largest population bases.  New licensees in these two cities are now planning the largest combined expansion of noncommercial radio service in the entire country.  Boise Community Radio (KRBX) and Thin Air Radio (KYRS) will be serving populations of 469,000 and 249,000, respectively.

Both groups have received $415,000 in Commerce funding and are now seeking matching funds totaling $152,000 to help build strong, listener-supported community radio stations that empower people – especially ethnic minorities, low-income, and other marginalized groups striving for a more just and sustainable world.

Combined, their programs will help make a stronger and more effective regional social change movement by promoting and facilitating communication and collaboration among nonprofit organizations, and by encouraging and enabling increased participation from community members.

However, these new licenses expire in 2011.

What makes no sense to me is why the social justice community, from to the NAACP, doesn’t get behind the build-out of community radio right now. Instead of repeatedly handing over millions of dollars to corporate broadcasters for fleeting ad messages, could help communities build and sustain new infrastructure for communications using affordable radio equipment.

The passage of the Local Community Radio Act in the US Senate, finally, means the FCC will offer up hundreds of new 100-watt licenses for community radio stations. Great! But first… how about supporting these one hundred secular, alternative, independent community stations right now? With unemployment rising, idiotic Bush/Obama economic policy, and dried up foundation funds, many nonprofits who have done everything else right may never launch their FM stations without financial support from the activist community. The clock is ticking.

More funding stories you might have missed, in brief:

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