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Future of Community Radio in VA On the Line in DC

December 15, 2010

RICHMOND, Va. - Small community radio stations run by schools, churches and other nonprofit groups could fade to static if Congress fails to act this session. These groups contend they've already faced an uphill battle to keep their lower power FM radio stations, known as LPFM, in the hands of the people, in Virginia and elsewhere.

At issue are the stations' licenses, according to Cheryl Leanza, policy advisor for the United Church of Christ. Ten years ago and with congressional approval, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave out 800 LPFM licenses. Since then, however, she says media lobbyists have done their best to stop the practice.

"And unfortunately, Congress responded to the pressure of large, incumbent broadcasters and drastically cut back the program. Now, we're working to expand the program back to its original size."

Critics of the low power community stations have cited technical interference to other FM stations as a reason to halt the licenses, but Leanza questions that argument. She says the LPFM broadcast signals are much weaker than the larger stations' signals. In her view, the airwaves should belong to the public, and not to the highest bidders.

"It puts radio right in the hands of ordinary people. So, if you're a church organization, you could put your youth organization on the air; you could put your perspective, your sermons."

The legislation to preserve the LPFM system, called the Local Community Radio Act (S. 592) is sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and has eight cosponsors, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). However, if it doesn't come up for a vote before Congress leaves for Christmas break, Leanza says many nonprofit groups are worried the measure will be shelved.

Monique Coppola, Public News Service - VA