Once every decade or so, the Earth rumbles, the mists clear, a light shoots from the sky and ... the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allows people to apply for permits to build radio stations. Citizens rejoice.
The application period lasts but days—mere moments, really. Applications can cost thousands to submit given all the research that goes into justifying the feasibility of a station. Small wonder radio stations are mostly owned by corporations.
One such puncture yawned nationwide for 10 days in October 2007, and grassroots group Available Media filed applications for five full-power noncommercial FM licenses. So far, two have been awarded, one in Gallup and one in Grants. One request was denied, and the group is waiting to hear back about the remaining two.
I sat down with Available Media at an Albuquerque diner to talk about what it means to them to have control over a corner of the media market.
Small wonder radio stations are mostly owned by corporations.
"This was kind of the last shot at getting slots on the FM dial," says Steve Mills, secretary of the organization. "There were literally thousands and thousands of applications submitted. Everybody knew this was your chance."
Available Media has three years to construct stations on the two frequencies it’s secured. "It's do or die," says Mills. "The FCC wants to see that you're for real. You can't just sit on a frequency and prevent anybody else from using it. If you don't have the wherewithal, then you lose that frequency."
Prices vary for building radio stations according to power and location, but they generally cost about $80,000 each. The group is seeking a Public Telecommunications Facilities Program grant to cover part of the cost. The rest will have to come through fundraising. Both stations are intended for community, nonprofit radio.
Available Media Vice President Allen Cooper says there's a huge information gap in the United States. "People don't have any idea what's going on," he says. "They don't know what's going on in their community, the state, in their country. They damn sure don't know what's going on in the world."
Available Media members say they hope the stations will allow regional dwellers to speak for themselves, offer local news and reach out to marginalized listeners. "When you take on the mission of providing information to a community," says Cooper, "that's an awesome responsibility."