Summary: The Left has discovered a new front in the ever-shifting war for media control: low power FM radio. It’s an innocuous-seeming concept with big repercussions for future audiences. But for conservatives, the fight may have been lost before it began.
The medium known as low power FM radio (LPFM) is, on the surface, hardly the stuff revolutions are made of. Yet this veteran medium is beloved of the free speech-hating Left because it offers a cheap buy-in with enormous gains. Since 2001, LPFM radio stations have rapidly developed in cities and regions across the United States. With an established network of leftist “free radio” groups ready to train, advise, and equip them, activists with no prior experience in broadcasting have the capability to organize people and spread their anti-American message.
For decades, left-wing ideologues have dreamed of utilizing low power radio as an organizing tool. Radio reaches an estimated 93 percent of everyone over 12 years old, and 200 million Americans tune in each week. It’s an enormous opportunity for the far Left, and one that conservative groups have totally ignored and are unprepared to face. With minimal funding and a handful of volunteers, progressives working in tandem with the federal government have the opportunity to monopolize thousands of licenses for low power radio stations nationwide—and all they need to run them is the power of a lightbulb.
It’s Radio, Jim, But Not as We Know It
LPFM stations (or bands) are small (capped by law at 100 watts, equivalent to a household lightbulb), because of their low wattage usually reach a maximum range of about 3 to 5 miles and are best suited for covering small communities. Early LPFMs generally provided local news and entertainment to rural areas with little radio coverage. In comparison, major radio broadcasting stations operate at 1,500–50,000 watts or more.
LPFM traces its roots to the amateur ham radio movement of the early twentieth century and for most of its history was left unregulated. It grew in popularity because it was cheap and local—a short-range, low-wattage form of FM radio used to reach small, rural audiences.
The basic nature of radio, however, limits space on the radio spectrum. Only so many stations can broadcast at any given time, and must be a certain distance from each other on the dial to avoid interfering with one another. As FM radio access and popularity grew in the 1940s, stations began to bump up their power and interfere with other signals, prompting national broadcasting conglomerates to lobby the FCC to institute new controls on the number of small stations licensed in a given area. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began issuing licenses to small broadcasters in 1948, mostly to schools and universities.
After it was established by congressional act in 1967, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—which today funds National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)—lobbied the FCC to further restrict low power bands, calling them a “waste of spectrum.” LPFM licenses were banned altogether by the FCC in 1978.
But the end of LPFM in America spawned a whole wave of “pirate radio” stations—tiny operations mostly concentrated in liberal cities such as Berkeley, California. The pirate radio movement has argued its broadcasting is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment, but the Supreme Court disagrees. In the 1969 case Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. the United States, the court ruled that:
… [B]ecause of the scarcity of radio frequencies, there was no First Amendment right for all citizens to own a radio license…the right of viewers and listeners was paramount, not the right of broadcasters.
During the Cold War, these pirates organized demonstrations using Marxist-Leninist propaganda, stylizing themselves the proletarian vanguard in the fight against corporate control of radio. The pirates held that low power FM licenses are essential to ending media consolidation and offering local reporting to communities. Privately, however, they espoused revolutionary goals: toppling corporate control being chief among their aims. This left-wing pseudo-intelligentsia envisioned low power FM radio as an essential component in the radicalization of America. Without LPFM—or “microradio,” as it also called—Marxists could never effectively mount a broader cultural war.
Radical radio outlets spread quickly during the 1990s as individual stations coalesced under the professional Left. Groups like Steal This Radio and Radio Free Berkeley were merged or replaced with broader coalitions such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and the San Francisco, California-based Microradio Empowerment Coalition (MEC).
Unlike most pirate radio stations, these coalitions were not single-issue outfits. Instead, they sought to expand LPFM as part of a larger progressive agenda. According to the book Market Rebels: How Activists Make or Break Radical Innovations, the MEC organized the Green Party, native American tribes, and the American Civil Liberties Union to support LPFM licensing. But Sarah Zia Ebrahimi, a member of MEC’s steering committee, admits that the movement’s ultimate objective is far more extreme than merely expanding LPFM legality. Ebrahimi calls the “complete redistribution of [radio] spectrum” a “great idea”—if currently unfeasible. FAIR regularly assails capitalism and conservatives as the stooges of Big Business. FAIR’s founder, Jeff Cohen, now works at RootsAction.org, the new font for his extremism. In Cohen’s words:
We need a fresh approach to defend the public interest. Our country faces a far-right Republican Party regime that is largely a subsidiary of corporate America, and a Democratic Party whose leadership is enmeshed with corporate power.
Conservative talk radio has long been a target of the Left. When the Reagan-era FCC revoked the Fairness Doctrine in 1987—a set of rules from the Kennedy era that required stations to allot time to both sides on political issues, effectively stifling political radio—many on the Left were furious. For the last three decades, so-called media reformers have called for a new Fairness Doctrine in the knowledge that it would destroy conservative talk radio.
Most recently this took the form of the “Hush Rush” campaign leveled at syndicated radio host Rush Limbaugh. Funded by George Soros’ Media Matters for America, an anonymous group of anti-Limbaugh activists attempted to pass off their censorship war as a grassroots effort with computer-generated tricks. Their efforts were exposed by former Limbaugh media analyst Brian Glicklich using Capital Research Center’s investigations into the Left’s attempts to silence conservatives. The broader effort to stifle the Right, however, rolls on.
Chief among the modern Left’s media reformers is Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois. Among McChesney’s recent works are Blowing the Roof off the Twenty-First Century: Media, Politics, and Post-Capitalist Democracy, and Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Away from Democracy. To McChesney, capitalism is an evil propagated by U.S. mainstream media, as he notes in a 2008 interview with the Marxist publication Monthly Review:
The media system reflect[s] the nature of the U.S. political economy, and any serious effort to reform the media system would have to necessarily be part of a revolutionary program to overthrow the capitalist political economy.
McChesney draws from a school of left-wing thought that views the modern, profit-driven media industry as a threat to democracy itself. The solution, predictably, is more government control, euphemized to “democratizing the airwaves.” He penned a forward touting more media statism in a 1999 folio by Greg Ruggiero, a closely aligned ally, called Microradio & Democracy. Ruggiero says that pirate radio stations are critical to ending the profit-driven media system:
This is a movement made up of hundreds of community groups who operate unlicensed clandestine radio stations in much the same spirit that Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus: to resist and challenge a dehumanizing and unconstitutional system.
The FCC’s decision to ban low power FM radio constitutes, Ruggiero says, mixing his metaphors, an “Iron Curtain” akin to “Hitler’s Germany.” Pirate radio in the U.S., he adds, is like the World War II “resistance movement [that] used unlicensed radio as a strategy against the Nazis.” Ruggiero wholeheartedly supports LPFM expansion.
Along with his longtime crony, John Nichols, McChesney profiles his case for media statism in a 2003 essay entitled Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media:
Media reform needs its equivalent of the Voting Rights Act or the Equal Rights Amendment—simple, basic reforms that everyone can understand, embrace and advocate in union halls, church basements and school assemblies. There is no way around it: Structural media reform is mandatory if we are serious about addressing the crisis of democracy in the United States.
Not coincidentally, first on the McChesney-Nichols laundry list of structural reforms is the establishment of “low-power, non-commercial community radio and television stations across the nation.”
In 2003, McChesney and Nichols founded Free Press, a so-called “media reform” group that cut its teeth campaigning for the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act. That act restricted political spending and individual contributions until it was altered by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC ruling. Seeking to restrict political speech online, Free Press then shifted its focus to establishing net neutrality—the rule giving the FCC full control to regulate the Internet—a fight it won under the Obama administration in 2015 (the Trump FCC has since signaled its intent to undo the rules).
Little wonder, then, that Free Press is eagerly funded by the anti-free speech cabal, including George Soros’ Open Society Institute, Bill Moyers’ Center for Media and Democracy, the Ford Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation.
Since its inception, Free Press has made key inroads into mainstream politics and earned support from many Democrats and some Republicans for its media policies. The group runs the National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR), a convention focused on promoting social justice activism in journalism, and attended by a bevy of leftists such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Peace and Freedom Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and crypto-authoritarians Bill Moyers and Arianna Huffington. Notably, Bush-era FCC commissioners Michael Copps and Jonathon Adelstein are regular presenters at NCMR, where they have offered their opinions on “special interest types in stuffy suits…crow[ing] on and on about the virtues of the extremely free market.” (Copps now works as special adviser to Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, a big government advocate created by a founding father of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Adelstein, a longtime Democratic aide to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Harry Reid, left the FCC in 2009 to serve in Barack Obama’s Department of Agriculture.)
Much of the mainstream media treats Free Press like a legitimate government watchdog. Its staff and allies are given credence as objective experts, and regularly appointed to positions in the government.
Jen Howard, press secretary for Obama-era FCC Commissioner Julius Genachowski, is a former media relations employee of Free Press. Mark Lloyd, the Obama FCC’s “diversity czar,” co-authored a 2007 paper titled “The Structural Imbalance in Political Talk Radio” with a Free Press co-founder in which he calls for broad new FCC rules intended to force out conservative talk radio stations. A former employee of the George Soros-funded Center for American Progress, Lloyd has also advocated for the removal of white people from the commanding heights of American media, to be replaced with minorities. Lloyd even praised the odious Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez for leading an “incredible revolution—a democratic revolution.”
Years of steady infiltration by leftists has left the FCC as ideological as the pirate radio movement it used to hunt. In many ways, the modern FCC operates as an active ally of the pirate radio movement.
FCC Hoists the Jolly Roger
Beginning in the Bill Clinton administration, a rift between the free market and statist wings of the Democratic Party widened over the issue of Internet regulation. Seeking to tighten government control of the media and free speech, statists like Gigi Sohn (an alum of the Ford Foundation and Open Society Institute) worked to appoint like-minded individuals to the FCC.
Their first victory came with the appointment of William Kennard to FCC Chairman in October 1997. Kennard has stated his view that the “First Amendment is a robust, living document,” and under his chairmanship steered the FCC away from simple regulation and towards “encouraging increased minority ownership” of media outlets. A year before his appointment, the Republican-majority Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the largest overhaul of telecommunications law since the creation of the FCC in 1934, favoring cross-media ownership by corporate conglomerates. Considered by many on the Left (including Kennard) to be a throwaway to Big Business aimed at paying off a Clinton campaign promise, the statists responded by doubling down on the lower power FM radio campaign.
One of the most prominent pirate radio groups that led the LPFM push is Prometheus Radio Project. Founded by self-described anti-war and social justice activists in 1998, Prometheus sought to pressure the FCC and Congress into reinstituting LPFM licenses with a series of “Lower Power FM Action Days”—protests organized in Washington, D.C. They hardly needed to demonstrate; congressional Democrats and FCC commissioners practically flung their doors wide to meet with the activists—including then-Senator Barack Obama, who agreed to co-sponsor pro-LPFM legislation.
In 1999 the Kennard FCC announced its intent to revisit LPFM licensing. In January 2000, the Low Power FM radio service was established under FCC direction by a 4-1 vote. Critically, the service only licenses individual owners in order to “retain their independence” from larger conglomerates; and most urban areas were excluded under the 2000 rules. Kennard, who first proposed the service, offered his thoughts on the issue:
Six months from today, the first low power radio stations may be on the air…Unfortunately, there are those who have been working non-stop to keep those first small stations from going on the air. Why? Because they know that once new voices can be heard, nothing can silence them.
This is about the haves—the broadcast industry—trying to prevent many have-nots—small community and educational organizations—from having just a little piece of the pie. Just a little piece of the airwaves which belong to all of the people.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the industry’s trade association, pushed back. They found an unlikely ally in National Public Radio (NPR)—a traditionally liberal, government-funded outlet. Together, the NAB and NPR argued that hundreds of small new stations would cause interference with major broadcasting bands on the dial, without increasing minority ownership. Their protests fell on deaf ears, however. The real intent of the LPFM decision—filling the airwaves with propaganda—was always ideological, never practical. The evidence is in the figures: the NAB in 2000 represented some 5,400 stations nationwide; under the 2000 LPFM rules, the FCC estimated it could eventually license as many as 4,000 low power stations.
The NAB-NPR coalition succeeded in lobbying Congress to pass the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000. The law authorized the FCC’s low power licensing, but ordered the agency to cease licensing of stations that had operated illegally (radio pirates). It also ordered an independent study of the interference issue by the Mitre Corporation, an engineering research nonprofit.
The plan backfired. To NAB-NPR’s chagrin, the study, completed in 2003, reported no interference by LPFM stations on existing bands. Free Press executive director Josh Silver spoke triumphantly:
Low Power FM stands out in an era of massive media consolidation. The public is pleading for the opportunity to expand this service into larger cities and increase the diversity of local voices. Congress shouldn’t stand in the way of these community-oriented stations any longer.
Low Power Pals in High Places
Silver soon got his wish as the march to expand LPFM radio ramped up during the George W. Bush administration, encouraged by FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin. During his tenure, Martin spoke about his efforts to increase licensing at an event hosted by the Rainbow Push Coalition, a group run by the black nationalist and Reverend Jesse Jackson.
In 2005, Senators John McCain (R-Arizona), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), and Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) introduced the Local Community Radio Act specifically aimed at freeing the FCC to license pirate radio stations. It failed to pass the Senate. The bill was reintroduced in in the House of Representatives in 2007, to the support of presidential candidates Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. It, too, failed to leave committee.
Finally, the Local Community Radio Act was again introduced in the Senate in 2010 and signed into law by President Obama, with important changes. Besides requiring the FCC to license LPFM stations, it expanded the number of potential licensees by eliminating the minimum distance requirement between low power and full-service FM stations—a handout to the LPFM crowd.
It was a significant victory for the Left, yet hardly covered by conservatives. In effect, Congress legalized hundreds of unlawful stations by requiring the FCC to offer them free licenses (albeit in limited quantities released in waves). But they didn’t stop there. In July 2011, the FCC announced it would expand LPFM coverage even further by implementing minimum floors in every radio service market:
Specifically, the Commission proposes a set of service floors to ensure at least eight LPFM channels in markets 1-20, seven in markets 21-50, six in markets 51-100 and five in markets 101-150 (as well as smaller markets where more than four translator applications are pending).
In just over a decade, “media justice activists” managed to transform LPFM radio from a federally harangued to a federally mandated medium—quite a feat. Obama FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn hailed the triumph in vaguely revolutionary tones:
Today, we start the countdown on the return of local voices to the radio waves, as low power radio stations will finally be given space to broadcast in large urban markets.
Clyburn went on to thank the radio pirates who organized the Left’s takeover of LPFM radio, offering a “special thanks” to Prometheus Radio Project—quite a feat, indeed.
Where Things Stand
In October 2013, the FCC offered a new batch of over one thousand LPFM licenses in what has been called the “biggest expansion of community radio” in U.S. history. Free Press hailed it as “the moment we’ve all been waiting for.” Prometheus Radio Project called it the Left’s chance to combat the conservative “push [for] anti-worker, anti-immigrant, and anti-choice policies,” and led the effort to snag the licenses before they could be obtained by “religious networks and conservatives, which have historically dominated the radio dial.”
They were joined by a bevy of left-wing groups, including the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, Greenpeace, the National Association of Broadcast Employees & Technicians (a broadcasters’ union), Color of Change, the Cesar Chavez Foundation, the New America Foundation, and the United Church of Christ.
Free Press and Prometheus Radio Project published step-by-step guidebooks for activists looking to start their own low power FM radio station, even providing sample mission statements to prospective groups, legal advice, used equipment, and subsidizing engineering costs.
As a result, the FCC was barraged with nearly 3,000 applications. It granted construction permits to 1,900 new stations—this time in major cities, where low-range radio stations have the capability of reaching upwards of 100,000 people each.
Today the push for LPFM licenses seems to be slowing down. The FCC has not scheduled another batch of licenses since the 2013 wave, but it’s likely only a matter of time before they do. A Pew Research Center study from September 2016 found that the number of low power FM radio stations had nearly doubled since 2014, bringing the total to roughly 1,500 across all fifty states and U.S. territories. The statistics are noteworthy:
LPFM stations are spread across all 50 states. Twenty-two states have a moderate number of stations (20-39), though three have more than 100 stations each: Florida (121), Texas (114) and California (102).
It remains to be seen what effect these stations will have on future generations of radio listeners, or whether many of them will even be able to keep up with maintenance costs. But one thing is certain: conservatives have work to do in the fight for media control. In future years, they may discover an ugly truth—there’s nothing low energy about the low power Left.
Hayden Ludwig is the Communications Assistant at Capital Research Center.