Workers, Get on the Air!

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida runs WCIW, “La Tuya,” which aids in organizing farmworkers and builds community. The station broadcasts in five languages. Photo: Prometheus Radio Project.

UPDATE, October 23: Because of the federal shutdown, the deadline to apply for a spot on the FM radio dial has been extended to November 14.

The FM dial is opening this year, and building community radio stations could give the labor movement a powerful megaphone.

In October unions and nonprofits will be eligible to apply for thousands of free, noncommercial FM radio licenses in cities and towns across the country. The Prometheus Radio Project, a nonprofit founded by radio activists in 1998, is ready to guide local unions through the process.

Every week, 241.3 million Americans listen to radio—and listenership is rising. The biggest holder of radio stations today is Clear Channel, owned by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, with more than 850 nationwide. Corporate-controlled radio has proudly placed the biggest microphone in the hands of Rush Limbaugh, the most highly rated talk-radio host.

We need community radio as a tool to organize more workers, build political power, and strengthen our coalitions to win campaigns.

NEW SPACE ON THE DIAL

By 2000 the FCC had issued about 800 licenses nationwide for low-power FM radio stations, which broadcast at 100 watts and can reach five to 20 miles in diameter, depending on terrain, interference from nearby stations, and buildings in the way. But at the behest of corporate lobbyists, these stations were limited to rural areas.

At a time when local news coverage is dying and labor reporters are nearly extinct, this infrastructure could be a game-changer for social movements.

Consider the many city coalitions fighting to keep public schools open, earn paid sick days, or raise the minimum wage. Corporate news keeps these campaigns invisible. Community radio could support and amplify them.

What if there were a progressive community radio station in every state capital? What if most of the 100 largest cities had people-powered media outlets? How would that affect policies and organizing drives?

Labor groups, immigrant organizers, artists, musicians, human rights groups, journalists, and media makers could collaborate to create a station that might be around for decades to come. And stations could form a national distribution network to share content from other cities and coordinate campaigns.

This next generation of stations will be more than radio. We could see community media centers with radio stations, video production studios, meeting rooms, and performance venues. These spaces could provide free Wi-Fi to the community and stream programs online, giving a global reach to local organizing.

Prometheus and allies fought for more than 10 years to pass the 2010 Local Community Radio Act. That law will now make noncommercial frequencies available for the first time in large and medium-size urban areas, with a range up to four miles in diameter. A single station could reach more than 100,000 listeners.

“Community radio can cover labor issues honestly at a time when unions are being ignored or painted as a source of trouble in TV news,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild-CWA.

Jim Joyce, president of the Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET-CWA), says his union is “excited to assist with engineering aspects of this project.”

IT’S ALREADY HAPPENING

A good example of community radio in a rural setting comes from the Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United (PCUN), Oregon’s largest Latino union. PCUN used to rent time on a commercial station, but when its organizing grew powerful, the station kicked PCUN off the air.

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So Prometheus helped union members build their own radio station in Woodburn, Oregon, in 2006. Radio Movimiento (Movement Radio) has helped PCUN organize thousands of farmworkers, register hundreds of new voters, and address pesticide exposure and sexual assault on the job. They’ve used radio to back state-level policies and national campaigns for immigrants’ rights.

“The people have been ready to express themselves for years,” said Erubiel Valladares of KPCN, “and when this door opens, there are many cries to the world of what changes are needed.”

Likewise, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida has used its station (broadcasting in up to five languages, including indigenous ones) to organize tomato pickers—and win historic campaigns against McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Subway.

And when collective bargaining rights came under attack in Wisconsin in 2011, Madison’s 30-plus-year-old community radio station WORT-FM was out in front handing workers the mic well before national news picked up the story.

WHAT TO DO NOW

Licenses for new stations go up for grabs in mid-October during what’s likely to be a week-long filing window. Groups can apply only during that short time—which will be the largest expansion of community radio in U.S. history.

Somebody will apply for a license near you. If it’s not a progressive group, it could be one of the conservative networks gobbling more space on the dial.

We expect the FCC to make the application available on its website one to four months before the filing window. So groups need to start getting ready now, and Prometheus will help labor and social justice groups both to apply and to get on the air.

The application and license are free. The only up-front cost is an engineering study, submitted with the application, which generally costs $500 to $3,000. Sometimes it’s free.

Groups will generally have two to four years to raise the estimated $10,000 needed to buy studio equipment. That also gives you time to recruit volunteers, raise money, and plan.

New stations are required to air a minimum 12 hours of daily programming, but that can be automated. You can play syndicated programs from other news and labor groups around the country to fill the space—while you build enough capacity with community volunteers and local partners to have some good-quality local shows and live programs.

Prometheus is encouraging labor groups to fill out profiles on our site until the end of June in order to receive support from our team through the October application process. Sign up for updates and for three monthly web seminars to learn more.

It’s expected that all remaining frequencies will be given out in this go-round, so this will be the final opportunity to apply for broadcast licenses in the United States.

The more progressive groups learn about this opportunity now and get the support they need, the more new progressive media outlets will pop up in our communities over the next few years. The investment we make now will pay off for decades.

Don’t expect to see this news on CNN. It’s up to us to write this story. Learn more at prometheusradio.org.

Jeff Rousset is the national organizer at Prometheus Radio Project.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #410, May 2013. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.