Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for Episode 61 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Sanjay Jolly on community radio and Internet. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi, and welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, produced by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Lisa Gonzalez.
In this episode of our podcast, Christopher Mitchell introduces us to Sanjay Jolly, Policy Director for the nonprofit Prometheus Radio Project. The group advances the work of lower power radio stations across the U.S. Sanjay describes how legislative changes in the 1990s threatened the existence of local radio. Prometheus and its network led the charge to fight back and regain footing for local radio through intense grassroots efforts. Chris and Sanjay also discusses the parallels between local radio and local broadband networks. Here's Chris and Sanjay.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Today, we're going to change it up a little bit and talk about different forms of media. We have Sanjay Jolly, the Policy Director at the Prometheus Radio Project with us today. Welcome to the show.
Sanjay Jolly: Thanks, Chris.
Chris: Can you, just briefly, tell us what Prometheus is?
Sanjay: Yeah. The Prometheus Radio Project is an organization -- we're based in Philadelphia. And we help support and build community radio stations.
Chris: And how long has Prometheus been active in these issues?
Sanjay: Prometheus has been around, oh, going on 15 years -- 1998. And before that, you know, the folks who started Prometheus were doing pirate radio out of West Philly. So they've been involved -- sort of in the struggle a long time.
Chris: I just have to throw out a plug for Philadelphia. It's close to my heart. I was born in Allentown, raised in the Lehigh Valley. And we still -- my family remains die-hard Eagles fans, despite living in Minnesota for 20 years.
Sanjay: [laughs] Good to hear.
Chris: Yes. And I look forward to actually grabbing a steak sandwich -- a cheesesteak -- when I am back in Philly in, well, just a few weeks, at this point. So, anyway, it's -- Prometheus, you're a terrific organization. We've followed you for many years. Because not only do we support local non-commercial -- and even commercial -- radio -- we support local radio generally. But you've been tremendously successful at realizing your agenda, I guess. And so, can you tell us a little bit about how -- what challenges Prometheus has faced, and just lead us toward the recent historic legislation that was passed.
Sanjay: Yeah. As I provide this history, you know, you mentioned that Prometheus has been so successful. But it hasn't always seemed like that, through the steps. And it's only in retrospect that, you know, it's kind of -- it's very -- it's really remarkable, everything that the organization has accomplished. You know that the '90s were an exciting time for media, but they -- from a regulatory standpoint, they were pretty terrible. ** the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there was massive deregulation happening. A lot of corporate consolidation. That was really the rise of Clear Channel -- was after the Telecommunications Act. And through this whole period, you have a lot of pirate radio stations spring up. Because folks who have been -- you know, whose voices were being shut out of, you know, of their local media landscape were going to pirate radio -- were going to broadcasting without a license.
Chris: So let me just interrupt you there. Is the problem with Clear Channel that it was basically taking a lot of stations that had been local, and basically firing a lot of the staff, and then piping in the music from far away? Was that the principal objection?
Sanjay: Yeah. I mean, it's not as if, you know, corporate radio was amazing before 1996. But, I mean, what you saw was -- you know, you had these -- you know, Cumulus and Clear Channel and these corporate giants buying up all these stations across the country. And, yeah, there -- I mean, you were listening to -- I'm from Detroit, so you're listening to the same formats in Detroit as you are in Philadelphia as you are in Topeka, Kansas. And really, radio now -- or at least commercial corporate radio -- it's the same anywhere you go in the country. So you took away that local voice. Yeah, I mean, you totally stripped the newsrooms and the staffs. I mean, there were massive layoffs in the industry -- ah, I mean, and that they're still reeling from. **, I mean, that sort of lack of diversity of content, I mean, it's -- can really, I think, strangle -- You know, radio is such a powerful medium in those communities that the lack of diversity of voices -- and of local voices -- You know, I mean, really, it's strangled news. It's strangled culture. I mean, it was terrible for local media.
Chris: So, Larry Lessig tells us not to break the law but to change it. And you noted that a natural response to this was that people began reclaiming the airwaves using pirate radio stations -- stations that were not officially sanctioned by the FCC. Although generally in unused spaces. It's not like you are, you know, taking other people's property or anything.
Sanjay: By and large, the pirate radio stations were, with few exceptions, they weren't interfering with existing stations. But, yeah, I mean, they were operating against the law. And the FCC -- And, you know, they operated for really a long time without the FCC really caring. You know, especially in the '90s, the FCC was really ramping enforcement on pirate radio. You know, there had been sort of an understanding that, you know, fine, run your pirate radio station. And then, after the '90s -- well, after the FCC was shutting down all these stations -- and then the backdrop of this is, you know, all the corporate consolidation after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there was a real outcry. You know, you're strangling local voices. And these are public airwaves. It bred an activist community around community radio, and around local radio. And -- um, so during the Clinton administration, you know, there were all sorts of protests. At one point, Prometheus led an action at the National Association of Broadcasters, which is the trade group that represents corporate broadcasters.
Chris: A very powerful trade group, at that.
Sanjay: Yeah. And they -- you know, they had a big protest outside the NAB headquarters in Washington, D.C. They hoisted a flag of the jolly roger onto their main flagpole. And it was a really -- they were really bringing attention to this issue. And so the FCC dithered a little bit, and then, you know, they -- you know, after sort of a lot of bureaucracy, they issued a low-power service, at 100 Watts and at 10 Watts. And so, nonprofits and schools and then sort of local municipal agencies can apply for a broadcast license at low power. But what ended up happening was, as -- you know, so ** people were super -- I mean, there was a flood of applications from all over the country. I mean, there was just so much enthusiasm around this. You know, with the NAB, with the support of National Public Radio -- lobbied hard to -- for legislative action. And so, what Congress did in 2000, and Bill Clinton signed -- it was a piece of legislation that -- it -- you know, it instituted these restrictions -- these spacing restrictions -- on low-power FM, that essentially, I mean, barred it -- every major market.
Chris: I think, to some extent, you can think of it as if, you know, on the highway, if, all of a sudden, Congress said, you know, you can't be within 15 feet of another vehicle at any point in time. You know, on your right or on your left. All of a sudden the highway has become a lot less useful.
Chris: It's just -- it's totally -- it's a far -- it's an unnecessary guardband, basically.
Sanjay: And there's a lot of "junk science" behind that decision. So, I mean, it was devastating. You know, there was so much enthusiasm around. And so the vast, vast majority of the applications that were filed with the FCC were thrown out. Really, the only folks who could get on the air were in rural areas -- where there was tons of open spectrum. People were furious. I mean, folks were really, really upset. And so for the better part of ten years, Prometheus led a coalition with some fantastic organizations -- like Free Press, and like the United Church of Christ -- to pass the Local Community Radio Act.
Chris: And those are a lot of the same groups that we find working on our same issues as well. I know Prometheus has been supportive of our issues, and we've tried to be supportive of yours as well. So, it's a ...
Chris: ... I fully agree that it's a great group of people and organizations.
Sanjay: Yeah. It's great people, and it's a very tight-knit community. I just wish it were bigger. Yeah, so, you know, they led this coalition on this issue, to pass the Local Community Radio Act. That eliminated those restrictions -- those third adjacent channel restrictions. And required the FCC to start issuing LPFM licenses.
Chris: Low-Power FM. Yup.
Sanjay: Yes. Low-Power FM.
Chris: And so, just to recap, then, basically, you have Clinton signing the bill, in 2000, which really restricted the amount of space that was available. Basically, made none of these stations available in urban areas. And how long did it take, exactly, until you were able to have the bill that restored the ability to have these licenses?
Sanjay The bill was signed in 2011.
Chris: That's a long time. And it's like you said, I think. When you're going through it, and you don't know if you're ever going to succeed, I think you just have these moments where you just feel like, well, did we just lose? Is it over?
Chris: It seems like, looking back, there's almost like some people then view it as some sort of historic inevitability, as though you would have known, along the way, that you would eventually win.
Sanjay: Yeah. I know. I mean, it was far from inevitable. Just like, yeah, I think, analogous to that, folks treat the current media landscape as this kind of inevitable result of history. And it's not. You know, it's -- what we have is not some natural end product. It was designed in a very particular way, with specific interests in mind. And I think folks miss that point when they think of, you know, what the media landscape looks like in this country.
Chris: What is the opportunity now, that's like literally coming up on us now in a few months?
Sanjay: Yeah. So, in October -- from October 15th to 29th -- the FCC will have a filing window open. And nonprofit organizations, and schools and universities, tribes and tribal organizations, and public safety agencies can apply for 100-Watt, low-power FM licenses.
Chris: And -- 100 Watt -- about how far would that signal travel in a -- you know, at some sort of average environment?
Sanjay: Yeah. On sort of average flat terrain, five to ten miles in any direction.
Chris: And in a more urban area, somewhat less than that?
Sanjay: Um, in a more urban area, somewhat less. But also in an urban area, I mean, the population density is so much higher that -- I mean, if you're talking about New York, or even some of the middle-sized urban areas, like Pittsburgh or St. Louis, we're talking about hundreds of thousands of people in this coverage area.
Chris: What does one have to do, in order to -- not just qualify but be likely to receive a station?
Sanjay: Organizations can, you know, can apply through the FCC website. There has to be an available FM channel within the area of the proposed transmitting antenna. If your organization is the only one to apply for a particular channel in a particular area, and there are no problems with your application -- so, for example, you know, you're not -- so folks actually -- and this was very contentious, because folks who have ever operated a radio station without a license are ineligible.
Chris: Oh, wow!
Sanjay: Which was a very, very contentious -- I think painful -- issue for a lot of folks. You know, certain folks who have been convicted of drug-possession felonies are ineligible for federal benefits. So, as long as you're not deemed ineligible along these criteria, and you're the only organization applying for a particular channel in your area, you'll receive the license.
If multiple organizations are applying for the same channel in the same area, the FCC allows an opportunity for those stations to engage in a settlement, and that's going to go sharing time on the same frequency. If that ends up, you know, not working out for whatever reason, the FCC has a point system. And then they award the LPFM license to the organization with the most number of points. And so, these points include being local in your community for more than two years -- um, that's one point. By being a tribe or tribal organization -- ** is a point. Having a publicly-accessible studio, that's open for several -- you know, for a certain number of hours a week. Another point is to -- a pledge to -- and this pledge is enforced by the FCC -- to produce a certain number of hours of local content per week. So whenever an organization has the highest number of points, will be awarded the frequency -- will be awarded the LPFM license for that channel. You know, if there's a tie for that highest number of points, you know, you kind of reach a settlement, or it's shared among the three organizations that have been the community the longest -- who have been incorporated as nonprofits or whatever form it is.
Chris: And I presume that people that are really interested and that need some more details, they can just go to Prometheus' website?
Sanjay: Yeah. And the two places where anyone can find resources on this are the FCC website and the Prometheus Radio Project website, which is prometheusradio.org . And there you can find -- I mean, there are lots of webinars and fact sheets on the October window, on the application window. There's a lot about the history of community radio in the United States. From step by -- webinars and guidebooks on how to complete an application. There's -- we host a -- ** -- a community called Radio Spark, which connects the com- -- you know, the LPFM community. So it's especially useful for asking questions on forums, and also for connecting with broadcast engineers and broadcast attorneys. We also host something called RFree, which is a channel finder, so you can find available FM chan- -- LPFM channels in your area, by just putting in the zip code or the address.
Chris: Oh, terrific! I want to change the subject just a little bit. To ask you a question that popped into my head after we started talking. Which did you like better, "Pump Up the Volume" or "Pirate Radio"?
Sanjay: "Pirate Radio."
Chris: It's a fantastic film. I watched it twice in two days. I -- The first time I saw it, I was just blown away.
Sanjay: Yeah. Good.
Chris: I just thought I'd throw it out there. You know, those are sort of the two premier radios -- or, two premier movies, in my mind, that sort of deal with this issue. Well, "Pump Up the Volume" has the classic, classic phrase -- it was, "Talk hard." And I think of that every now and then. "Talk hard." I like it.
The last thing I really wanted to hit on was pulling together this thing that we talk about most often, community-owned Internet networks, with locally-owned radio. And I'm just sort of curious if you see any natural synergies between these two different ideas.
Sanjay: You know, the physical infrastructure aligns very well. I mean, so if the personnel have the same expertise that they would -- you know, relatively, the same expertise that they would need for a municipal Wi-Fi network. You know, they have the space. And so, on a practical level, it works out very well. From -- you know, and -- we haven't seen that a lot in the U.S., because, really, these things are in their infancies. But, you know, we work with a group called the ** Project in Oaxaca, Mexico. Their community radio station also runs a municipal cell phone network. And it's the same folks who are doing the maintenance on them. And it's a -- really, I think it's a really scalable model, to align the two. But on -- sort of on a less day-to-day level, the underlying theories -- the underlying ideologies of interest, I mean, are really the same. And it's about people controlling their own telecommunication infrastructure -- controlling their own media.
Chris: Right. Their ability to communicate. Literally.
Sanjay: Right. Exactly. Their right to communicate. The more that these organizations -- or that these media -- you know, community radio and municipal Wi-Fi -- grow individually, the more they can do to support each other. And, you know, in part because the -- once these things ingrain themselves in a community, it raises so much consciousness. You know, I don't think folks realize how awful the telecom infrastructure is in the United States. And how screwed folks get in this landscape. And so, I think the underlying ideologies between both of these tools are -- you know, they come from the same place. Which is about people controlling their right to communicate. And there hasn't been a lot of -- maybe partly in fault of organizations like Prometheus, and not doing a good job of really educating people about this. The level of consciousness on this issue across the country is not very high. And I think it's increasing now. And I think folks realize -- for example, with this NSA spying situation that's going on right now. You know, and Lavabit being shut down now. People are seeing why it's important to control their own communications infrastructure.
Chris: I just got back from a short trip to Glasgow, Kentucky, where -- it's actually the site of the nation's oldest municipal broadband network. And it was actually the first community in the United States to have broadband available to every address in the community. Back in 1994. And I interviewed a guy there who owns a local radio station. And he started just going on the radio to do local news. Now, Glasgow is not particularly small. It's about 17,000 people, if I remember correctly. But it's halfway between Louisville and Nashville. And there's some other small towns around there. But they don't have a lot of local media doing news. And so he would just get on the radio each morning and talk about local news -- that he'd read in the newspaper, or somewhere else. But there was no one else broadcasting local news. With the municipally-owned network, which carries local programming, he actually used to -- started putting his local radio show on the television as well, so people could access it in a different way. And the ability of people to have a local radio show, and to have local television, has really sparked, I think, more people to think about it, over the years. And they have a number of local programming shows that come about. They have people that, you know, want to broadcast local sporting events. And they do a lot of the work themselves to cover it. And so I just -- it's one of those things where, I think, to some extent, a lot of us who aren't used to seeing these opportunities around us think that there's no demand for it. And that -- you just sort of think, well, what exactly would a local radio station do? And, like, there's millions of things it could do if people had the opportunity, right?
Sanjay: Right. It's like saying, you know, what can a democracy do?
Chris: Yeah. That makes sense.
Sanjay: Um, but, you know, the thing is, I -- every now and then, I'll throw around the term -- you know, with my family or with friends -- "democratic media." Right? As -- or "participatory media."
Sanjay: ... and folks don't connect with it. You know? They don't -- they see something like that -- I have no idea what you're talking about. You know? Like, I'm inundated with ** -- you know, I turn on the TV and there's just things being thrown at me. Do we really need more voices out there? Isn't it -- you know, it's -- the level of consciousness on this issue -- and the frame of the language that we use -- really needs to improve a lot, to get to a point of change, and -- you know, whether it's legislative or really just kind of public enthusiasm for it. For the amazing things that are happening on this scene.
Chris: Yes. And I like to think that by having more opportunities -- you know, whether it's local radio or local television from a public access channel in a public access center, or a community-owned fiber optic or wireless network -- that hopefully, with all these different opportunities, people will be more aware of what's available to them. So, I really want to thank you, and all the great work that Prometheus has done. And thank you for coming on this show to talk about these issues with us.
Sanjay: Yeah. Thank you so much, Chris. It was a pleasure.
Lisa: That was Chris talking with Sanjay Jolly from the Prometheus Radio Project. You can learn more at prometheusradio.org . We also follow the project at muninetworks.org and try to keep you updated on the low-power radio movement. Thanks again for spending time with us at the Broadband Bits Podcast. Please don't hesitate to contact us with your ideas for the show. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also follow us on Twitter, where our handle is @communitynets. This show was released on August 27th, 2013. Thank you again to the group Break the Bans for their song, "Escape," licensed using Creative Commons. And thank you for listening.