Open Market Ideas: Canada Needs Social Radio

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Prometheus and the American Radio Experience

I really should stay away from this kind of a topic because I’m not an expert, but I can’t help but comment on the recent changes to radio services in the US.

Recently, the FCC made an important landmark decision concerning access to airwaves that would effectively give small, independent organizations an opportunity to compete with the monopoly services that currently exist.

For those of you who aren’t aware of this, the American radio landscape is effectively by a small handful of mega-media conglomerates such as Clear Channel, Cumulus Media Networks and Cox Radio.

Prometheus Radio has been very effective at lobbying for these changes.  Prometheus Radio was actually started in 1998 and represents a small handful of ‘radio activists’.  Even though their efforts have been very long in the making, they have finally received FCC approval in the US to create Low Powered FM (LPFM) radio stations throughout the US.  The full detail of the recent FCC decision has been pasted below, outlining the establishment of what are called ‘low frequency radio stations’.

Radio Predictions, Anyone?

Is it possible that any of these conglomerates will face real competition from lo-fi radio programs?

Not likely, but I’m optimistic.

Lo-fi radio may do to mainstream radio broadcasts what social did to digital.  In the early days of digital, the most frequented sites were those that were part of media conglomerate families.  Example:  Sympatico of Bell Canada or of Microsoft.

They were the default destinations or ‘portals’ for web browsers and Internet Service Providers (ISPs).  To this day, many people still have MSN or Sympatico set as their home page because they just don’t know how to change or don’t care.

Today, these portals still account for a large volume of traffic, but people go there just as much as they go to thousands of other sites because millions of services like Google Search or Wikipedia send users elsewhere.  Similarly, most people actually think Facebook IS the Internet, forgetting that there are trillions of other sites out there vying for their attention, especially those of mainstream media.

In other words, what we once thought would be impossible is clearly happening every day.

Prometheus may very well become the new standard for ‘socializing’ radio broadcasting in America.

The Canadian Opportunity

I’ve been following the efforts of Prometheus organizers and volunteers over the last year or so wondering if Canada and Canadians will get a similar opportunity.  Will the CRTC break down and allow lo-fi?  Will Canadians simply say enough is enough and start their own services and deal with the implications later?

My desire to see change may seem ironic given my focus on having everything be digital, but I’ve come to believe that there are unique opportunities to be had with encouraging local grassroots content curation as a viable alternative to commercial radio.

The fact of the matter is that I can’t stand commercial radio and the CBC seems incapable of delivering something that appeals to my local needs coupled with desire to get updates on international activities.

Low-power FM (LPFM) stations might just do the trick.

Digital Integration

Of course, there are opportunities to integrate lo-fi radio broadcasts with digital.  The basic idea of ‘social radio’ is actually very appealing to me.

I’ve already reached out to Prometheus, sharing some ideas, but will re-post them here.  Some examples of what local producers could do, under consolidated resources:

  • Create apps that people can download to the smartphones.  The phone would pick up local signals and rebroadcast them to your car radio, making the classic ‘dial’ obsolete (let’s face it:  all your car needs today is an AUX plug-in)
  • Facilitate online integration and idea sharing
  • Encourage instant updates provided by users, including traffic, crowd-sourced high school football games updates and so on.  They could be anonymous updates or they could be integrated via Twitter or some other updating tool
  • Allow users to cross-pollinate musical preferences, giving them the opportunity explore music from other regions
  • And so on …

Fragmentation in the Marketplace

If lo-fi radio gains a toe-hold in the US or Canada, fragmentation will become the operative word.

Traditional media buyers will finally understand how maddening it can be buying digital media, as they will no longer be able to justify bulk buys with one or two radio conglomerates.  Instead, they will have to focus on geographic and demographic targeting, integrate some element of tracking and regional variation and justify spend based on response.

Despite all this, I’m excited!  A whole new airspace is about to open up and those that get in early will be in for a hell of a ride.  If anyone is interested in this topic, please email me directly (bill AT bottree DOT com) and let me know how I we can work together on this.

Bill Wittur
Bottree Digital Services – Get Found Online
Media Strategist
London, Ontario



FCC Decision Opens Radio Airwaves for Communities Nationwide
New rules create opportunities for hundreds of new community radio stations

March 19, 2012

Washington, DC– In a victory for communities nationwide, today the Federal Communications Commission announced that the agency will open the airwaves for community radio. To make room for a new wave of local stations, the FCC will clear a backlog of over six thousand pending applications for FM translators, which are repeater stations that rebroadcast distant radio stations. The decision will allow for the first new urban community radio stations in decades.

“Today the FCC has opened the door for communities to use their own local airwaves, and that will be transformative,” said Brandy Doyle, Policy Director for the Prometheus Radio Project. “We commend the Commission staff for the care and diligence they have shown. We also wish to thank Chairman Genachowski, Commissioner McDowell, and particularly Commissioner Clyburn and her hardworking staff for their efforts on behalf of communities.”

The announcement concludes the first hurdle in implementing the Local Community Radio Act, passed by Congress in 2010 after a decade-long grassroots campaign. The FCC is on track to accept applications for new Low Power FM (LPFM) stations nationwide as early as Fall 2012. Community groups are gearing up to apply for the licenses, which will be available only to locally-based non-profit organizations.

“For our migrant communities here in Arizona, community radio would give a voice to people who rarely get to speak for ourselves in the media,” said Carlos Garcia, Lead Organizer with Puente Arizona. “Anti-immigrant voices dominate the airwaves. Community radio can help us tell our own stories, share news and information, and get organized.”

Broadcast radio remains one of the most accessible means of communication in the US, with 90% of Americans listening at least once a week.

“Radio is a great tool for reaching working people – it’s free to listen, easy to produce, and people can often tune in on the job or while doing housework,” said Milena Velis, Media Organizer and Educator with Philadelphia-based Media Mobilizing Project. “In Pennsylvania, we’re facing big challenges, from education cuts to rural poverty to environmentally destructive shale drilling. We see community radio as a way to bring people together and create solutions from the ground up.”

Low power community stations are non-commercial and cost as little as $10,000 to launch, putting these stations within reach of many communities who have limited access to other media outlets.

Hundreds of pending translator applications will be dismissed in Philadelphia, Phoenix, and dozens of other cities, in compliance with the rules released today. The FCC plan will preserve channels by dismissing translator applications that would preclude future community radio stations in certain markets where the FCC has determined that space for community radio will be scarce.

“We are pleased that the FCC has taken such a careful approach to preserving channels for community radio,” said Doyle. “And we’re particularly glad that the FCC has taken our recommendation to ensure that the frequencies set aside are in populated areas, where they are needed. This will make a big difference in San Antonio, Sacramento, and 12 other mid-sized markets, where stations too far from the city would have reached only tumbleweeds or farmland.”

The FCC had stopped processing the pending applications in response to a 2005 petition filed by Prometheus and Media Access Project. The new processing plan includes several changes proposed by Prometheus to improve the outlook for community radio.

Also today, the FCC released a set of proposed rules for new community radio stations, asking for public comment on the proposals. That release begins the final rulemaking procedure which must be completed before the agency can accept applications for new stations.

The Prometheus Radio Project has been the leading advocate for low power community radio since 1998. Prometheus led a decade-long grassroots campaign to pass the bipartisan Local Community Radio Act, succeeding in 2010. Over its history, Prometheus has supported hundreds of communities in licensing, building, and operating their own radio stations.