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Radio for People: FCC to Grant Licenses for New Full Power Noncommercial FM Radio Stations

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This October, the Federal Communications Commission will open a one-week window during which nonprofit community groups in the United States can file applications for their own noncommercial broadcast license. A coalition called Radio For People has formed to help groups through the application process. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The crisis of media consolidation continues. The FCC, chaired by Republican Kevin Martin, has not yet seen a merger that it doesn’t like. Conglomerates like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation are among the most powerful corporations on the planet. His papers routinely beat the drums for war, while simultaneously distracting the public with gossip and glitz.

Yet people are finding innovative ways to fight back to demand independent community-based media. One such effort that you can join is the movement to create new full-power, noncommercial FM radio stations in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: This October, the Federal Communications Commission will open a one-week window during which nonprofit community groups in the United States can file applications for their own noncommercial broadcast license. A coalition called Radio for People has formed to help groups through the application process. It’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Today, we’re joined in our firehouse studio by two members of that coalition: Ursula Ruedenberg is with Pacifica Radio, and Libby Reinish is with the Prometheus Radio Project. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Ursula, let’s begin with you. Explain the significance of this window in October.

URSULA RUEDENBERG: This is really about the need for local progressive media. Community activists know that it’s almost impossible to get media coverage for the social issues that they want to bring to the public attention. I’m from the Midwest. Originally, I’m from Iowa. And in order to get public exposure for their issues, I know that my colleagues back in Iowa are having to resort these days to letters to the editor and to yard signs for getting the attention they need to their issues.

So this is — you know, even today, with exciting new media like the Internet, radio still remains the most accessible and the most effective way for people in communities to communicate their issues. So this is about claiming what is really the right of us, as American citizens, to have access to the airwaves and to make them our media so that we can communicate what we need to each other as community members.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Libby Reinish, given the explosion of obviously commercial media in the country, isn’t the creation of a radio station like this to be able to — first to get the license but then to create the station prohibitively expensive? How can community organizations and nonprofits get involved?

LIBBY REINISH: Sure. It’s definitely not prohibitively expensive to apply for these licenses. If you were to buy a noncommercial radio station in most places in the country, it would cost you millions of dollars. The FCC is handing out these licenses for free. The only associated costs are hiring an engineer and a lawyer to fill out your application for you and then, of course, the cost of building the station, which can run you between $20,000 and $200,000, depending on the size of the station.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how will the process work for the FCC to actually choose from applicants? Is there any kind of a vetting or point system that the FCC will be using for the applicants?

LIBBY REINISH: Yes. There’s a new point system that the FCC is using for one of the first times this October, and it’s much better than the system they had before. It does favor local groups, and it favors groups that don’t already own a radio station in a given market. So for groups that are facing competition from other applicants, they’ll go through that point system, and it will be to their advantage to be at least a two-year-old organization that’s headquartered in the community of license of the radio station.

AMY GOODMAN: Ursula, how do people find out if there is an FM signal? Now, a few weeks ago, we talked to Prometheus about the low-power signals and about people getting low-power radio. Also explain the difference.

URSULA RUEDENBERG: OK. This is an important point, because many people confuse the two, and they think that we’re talking about low-power stations. This is about the full-power radio stations. A full-power station is a station that has a hundred watts or more, which means that it can cover large areas. We have some stations that can cover, you know, the central part of a state. So this is a —

AMY GOODMAN: So it could be 100,000 watts, 50,000 watts.


JUAN GONZALEZ: So that means that — will this be able to be done anywhere? For instance, let’s take a group in Brooklyn, New York, like Make the Road by Walking. Will they be able to make an application, or will this be limited to particular areas of the country?

LIBBY REINISH: It’s mostly not available in the big cities. If you live in one of the 10 biggest cities in the country, there’s absolutely nothing available, because the noncommercial dial is already full of radio stations. But if you live in any other city in the country, a medium-sized city, a smaller city, and especially in rural areas, there’s a high likelihood that there’s some frequency available for you.

URSULA RUEDENBERG: Yeah, one thing that we should make clear is we’re talking about noncommercial radio stations. The left side of the radio dial is reserved specifically for noncommercial stations. So we’re not talking about most of the dial, where you hear commercial radio. This is the left side. So there’s a limited number of frequencies available. And these have been available for, you know, almost fifty years now. So they’re — most of them have been taken in the urban areas.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And given the existing lack of diversity in the current radio system, are there any particular incentives or in the point system that the FCC is using for minorities and women to be able to apply — organizations to apply for these licenses?


JUAN GONZALEZ: None whatsoever?

LIBBY REINISH: None whatsoever, no.

AMY GOODMAN: So, right now, what are you suggesting people do to find out if there is a full-power FM station in their area? And what does it mean? I mean, we’re talking a window in the middle of October, the 12th to what? The 17th and 19th? That’s when they apply, but what do they have to do first, like engineering studies?

URSULA RUEDENBERG: OK. Yeah, the work actually happens prior to the window opening, because it’s a relatively complicated and lengthy process to be prepared. The way you apply for the license is you have — you open up an account on the FCC’s website. And you will be putting the information onto the website during the — and you will be registering this information during this window of the licensing, or the filing window. However, prior to that, what you’re going to have to do is to make sure that your organization’s legal standing and legal papers are in order, so that it will undergo scrutiny successfully. This needs to be a nonprofit organization. You’re going to need to work with a radio consulting engineer to make sure that you have a radio tower and to make sure all the technical details of your frequency will be worked out, so that when it’s entered into the website, it’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: I can already hear a lot of people clicking off right now and saying, “Wow! I have a great nonprofit. It’s been going on for a number of years. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I couldn’t do an engineering study. I don’t have a tower.” So how do people — let me, Libby, ask you: How do people get this, if they’re just a great group that believe in grassroots communications?

LIBBY REINISH: Yeah, don’t be intimidated by the complicated nature of this process. That’s what groups like Pacifica and Prometheus and Common Frequency and the rest of the Radio for People Coalition are here for. We are here to help community groups sort through the application and fill it out properly, so that they can get their own community radio station. All it takes is the desire, the inspiration and the willingness to act quickly, because this opportunity is coming up fast. Two months is not long to get through the engineering work and the legal work that needs to happen.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And those who want to get more information on how they can get involved or go through the application process, who do they contact?

LIBBY REINISH: They can contact Pacifica. They can contact Prometheus. There’s two great websites they can go to to get started. One of them is The other is has a great zip code tool where you can plug in your zip code, and it will give you an idea of whether or not there might be a frequency available in your town. You can also call Prometheus. The number is (215) 727-9620. Or Pacifica.

URSULA RUEDENBERG: Yeah, you can call Pacifica at (510) 812-7989.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll put all that information on our website. Once-in-a-generation opportunity for community groups in this country to get full-power FM stations. We don’t know if it will be happening again. I want to thank you both for being with us. Ursula Ruedenberg is with Pacifica, the Pacifica affiliates coordinator, also getradio-dot

URSULA RUEDENBERG: Right. There’s and

AMY GOODMAN: And Libby Reinish, full power coordinator for the Prometheus Radio Project, thank you so much for being with us.

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