All Contents © Copyright 2009, Boston Neighborhood News, Inc.
March 19, 2009
Time to extend low-power radio service into cities

By Gloria Tristani

While the number of radio stations is growing, ownership is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands due to widespread media consolidation. This means today's radio often offers national playlists, syndicated programming and other piped-in content that threatens localism and the diversity of voices on the public airwaves.

When I was a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), we established low power radio service in 2000 as a partial antidote to the negative effects of consolidation.

Low power radio (LPFM) makes new licenses available for nonprofit community organizations, churches, schools, and local governments.

Low power radio informs people about what is going on in their neighborhood or town; features local musicians and unique programming that reflects the local culture; and breaks from the same homogenized content that pushed radio listeners away.

When LPFM was created, it was intended to reach across the whole country from rural areas, to towns and cities; only excluding the most congested urban markets like New York and Los Angeles. These ambitions were halted when Congress placed unfair restrictions on the service due to existing broadcasters' exaggerated charges of interference. Congress directed the FCC to commission a study to investigate these claims.

In 2003, MITRE, a not-for-profit engineering and consulting firm, concluded its report and found, as the FCC had from the beginning, that this service would not cause harmful interference to existing radio stations. There are currently 800 existing LPFMs, but there is space for hundreds, potentially thousands more if Congress acts to remove the unnecessary restrictions placed on this service.

There are wonderful examples of LPFM in rural areas, playing an important part in bringing communities together. Clay, West Virginia, is an Appalachian coal town just north of Charleston and is home to one of the only local radio stations in Clay County. WYAP-LP is run by a handful of dedicated volunteers and the programming ranges from bluegrass music, to coverage of local sports games - and on Friday they only play West Virginia artists, giving a boost to many old-time musicians throughout the area.

WQRZ-LP in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, brought national attention to the life-saving potential of LPFM when station manager Bryce Phillips waded through Katrina's flood water with a battery-pack strapped to his back in order to keep the station on air-broadcasting important emergency information-in the face of the deadly storm.

In the fields of Southwest Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers immigrant farmworkers who pick tomatoes for the largest fast-food companies and suppliers in the country, have carved out their slice of the airwaves with Radio Conciencia. WCIW-LP carries programming in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and a number of indigenous Mayan languages spoken by the workers who are currently battling against sub-poverty wages and in extreme cases, modern-day slavery in Florida's tomato fields.

With the repeal of Congressional restrictions on LPFM, there could be more stations like WYAP, WQRZ, or WCIW not only in rural but also in suburban and urban America.

Low power radio promotes localism and diversity, not by limiting the rights of existing voices, but by adding new voices to the mix. Congress must enhance the statutory obligation to "encourage the larger and more effective use of radio in the public interest" by allowing this service to expand.

Bipartisan members of Congress have recently introduced a proposal to do so. President Obama's past support of similar legislation and his pledge to encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media and to promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints demonstrate his commitment to expanding low power radio.

Moreover, the issue of expanding low power radio is ultimately a popular demand from community and civil rights groups, churches, schools, immigrants and average citizens.

Tristani is a former FCC Commissioner.


Vestiges of anti-Catholic cult sully state's Constitution with bigotry

By Jamie Gass

"The Irish are perhaps the only people in our history with the distinction of having a political party, the Know-Nothings, formed against them," wrote John F. Kennedy in his 1958 book - "A Nation of Immigrants." Today, few people realize the Massachusetts Constitution has two Know-Nothing-style amendments, which still thrust their mid-19th century bigotry into our world.

Massachusetts in the 1850s was a bustling, disjointed, and rapidly growing state. The Yankee commonwealth and its cities were undergoing seismic industrial and social transformations. New and powerful railroads, factories, telegraph lines, and banks ruled the day. The mass immigration of tens of thousands of souls fleeing the Irish famine fueled this mighty engine, which would drive the commonwealth's historic economic growth.

Despite making up one-quarter of the population in Boston and many other cities in Massachusetts, Irish immigrants were confronted by ethnic, religious and economic prejudice from urban Yankees. The Irish only sought what all immigrants look for in America: refuge from tyranny, religious freedom and jobs. Regrettably, wrote author Jack Beatty, "in the 1850s...(t)he grammar of Massachusetts politics was being laid down."

The American Party, or Know-Nothings, code-named "Sam," plotted its anti-immigrant rise in fraternal lodges one historian called, "cocoon(s) of secrecy." They assured clandestine party membership with peculiar handshakes and the password, "I know nothing." Charles Francis Adams, the anti-slavery statesman whose grandfather drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, rebuked "Sam," stating that the "essence of the secret obligations which bind these men together ... (was) productive of nothing but fraud, corruption, and treachery."

In 1854, the Know-Nothings rode a cunning platform of anti-Catholic nativism and progressive reforms to the largest electoral landslide in Bay State history. "Sam" had unmasked itself in the voting booths and swept every constitutional office in the state and won all but three legislative seats. Led by their governor, Henry J. Gardner, and a legislative super-majority, the Know-Nothings promulgated a flood of appallingly anti-constitutional laws designed to "Americanize America." Properly understood, Know-Nothingism was not so much a political movement, but an anti-Irish-Catholic cult.

More than 150 years later, Gov. Gardner's nativist "Anti-Aid" amendment, which prevents disbursement of state funds and local tax revenues to parochial schools, is an infamous legacy that still endures. In 1917, a revised "Anti-Aid" amendment was passed, and together these two constitutional sons of "Sam" continue to insult the integrity of both our educational system and state laws.

These Anti-Aid Amendments serve today as legal barriers to improving our children's education. The Know-Nothing amendments prevent more than 100,000 urban families in Massachusetts with children in chronically underperforming districts from receiving scholarship vouchers that would grant them greater school choice.

Removal of these amendments, which were conceived in prejudice, would help revitalize the urban educational landscape in Massachusetts. In essence, school funding from the state could follow the student, as it does in higher education across America, and all parents could choose from a wide variety of different private, parochial, public charter, vocational-technical, and religious school options for their children.

Critics of school choice frequently claim that having a choice would draw religion into the public domain. However, having individual parents, and not the state, utilizing scholarship vouchers to select the most appropriate schools for their children, respects the highest spirit of Thomas Jefferson's desire to keep "a wall of separation between church and state." By self-selecting their communities and schools, wealthy families have had these options available to them for decades. Currently, many poor children are walled off from the same educational opportunities.

Written by John Adams in 1780, the Massachusetts Constitution, the oldest written constitution in the world, just celebrated its 229th anniversary. Yet, today, Gov. Gardner's State House portrait hangs unsuspectingly next to the main entrance of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Likewise, the Know-Nothings' bigoted amendments continue to reside cozily within our state's constitution.

This St. Patrick's month, we should honor the commonwealth's Irish heritage by appealing to America's best aspirations regarding religious freedom and schooling. We can accomplish this by lawfully expelling the Know-Nothings' anti-Irish-Catholic amendments from our realm. Then, once and for all, Massachusetts can finally declare to constitutionally-protected discrimination, "No, nay never no more."

Jamie Gass is the director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Massachusetts public policy think tank.


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