In mid-January it was reported that independent (indymedia) media activists in Johannesburg had illegally run a radio station from the Soweto home of anti-privatisation activist Trevor Ngwane for two months in 2005. Rasa FM was eventually shut down by local police.
Coverage focused on political differences between the African National Congress and its supporters and defenders on the one hand, and Ngwane, a bete noire of the new dispensation, on the other. The station was pegged as a front for critics of the government associated with the Anti-Privatization Forum and Ngwane’s Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee. But, in fact, this controversy obscured what was actually interesting about this episode.
Buried in the news articles was a mention that Rasa FM was run on ‘low power FM radio’ (LPFM) technology. This is a technology that for many represents an alternative to both commercially driven and community radio, both of which to varying degrees are subject to pressures to let its programming be driven by advertising. As Ngwane commented, LPFM “is a medium for the community of Soweto to air their views without fear that they will scare away advertisers”.
Ngwane added that even the local community radio station, Jozi FM, is sponsored by Joburg Water. As a result, “— a voice that is against the prepaid water system will be suppressed,” he said. In the coverage it also emerged that Rasa FM activists had applied to ICASA for a licence, but had learned that their application would not be considered. The activists protested that “the regulations governing low-power radio do not take account the potential of the technology”. They did not say much more.
They could have reminded their critics about the US experience with the technology. In the US where there are 9,000 licensed radio stations on the FM spectrum, at least 550 operate on LPRM. Operating mainly in rural areas their signals carry at most for about 15 square kilometres. The most successful are on the US northeast in states as varied as California, Pennsylvania and Vermont.
With start-up costs as little as $10,000 (R60,000) per station, locals and volunteers, mostly amateurs, usually staff the stations. The production value, however, competes with the best commercial and public stations. The Media Access Project, which coordinates legal representation for these stations, points out that: “The service can provide community health information, local news, arts, foreign language programming, literacy programming, anything a local community organisation would like to provide.”
In the last ten years, largely because of the deregulating of the airwaves (the end of anti-trust measures, for example), local radio has been wiped out. For most listeners, radio now comes from a studio far away (usually one of the larger cities such New York or Los Angeles), with programming largely syndicated (the same hosts) or pre-programmed. One company, Clear Channel, has a virtual monopoly of the airwaves.
Some of those unhappy with terrestrial radio have turned to satellite radio or streaming through the web. But not everyone is web-savvy or can afford the subscription fees for satellite radio. But LPFM in the US ran into opposition just as it could significantly alter the media market. Congress were reviewing licences for at least 3,400 of these LMFM stations and a number of stations were successfully operating in rural areas when activists started talking about wanting to launch stations in larger urban areas.
However, their plans faced stiff opposition when in 2001 commercial and, ironically, larger public broadcasters, lobbied the US Congress not to legalise LPFM in urban areas. The commercial and public broadcasters argued that the new stations would interfere with their signals, making them unlistenable. Despite the fact that LPFM activists had the support of political representatives — such as Senator John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate — and that research proved that the signal problems were insignificant, the issue stalled in Congress.
Currently LPFM activists that include a motley crew of left-wingers, environmentalists, Christian broadcasters and labour unions — encouraged by a new interest in media diversity in Washington DC among the Republican majority — are waiting for Congress to set aside the objections of mainstream broadcasters. Then they can start building stations. Rasa FM activists as well as community radio activists in South Africa will probably watch this closely.
Sean Jacobs is The Media’s correspondent in the United States.