Lower Power FM Radio Could Offer Immigrant Communities New Way to Communicate

NYC Taxi Driver

NYC taxi drivers keep in touch using cell phones. (Photo: Colin Milligan/flickr)

In the late 1990s, Pakistani, Indian and other South Asian cab drivers in New York City developed a unique communication system using CB (Citizen’s Band) radio to discuss their community’s issues in their native tongues.

“I remember there used to be hundreds of drivers on the CB radio and we used to share all kind of information with each other including traffic, weather, customers waiting for the cab, local, international news,” recalled Suhail Shabbir, a former driver. “Many times we were tipped of by other drivers that police in certain areas is (sic) stopping and checking the cabs, then we used to change our routes.”

In more recent years, conference calls, three-way calling features and unlimited talk plans offered by cell phone companies have filled the communication and information-sharing needs of South Asian cab drivers.

“Most of the drivers are now using cellular phones not only to keep in touch, but to share information, news, views and many other things with each other. The same is the case with other members of our communities,” said Shabbir, who no longer drives a cab and now runs his own cell phone business.

Now these communities may be able to move to another means of communication to discuss their issues.

On January 7, 2011 President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act, which allows for the creation of thousands of new non-commercial stations on U.S. airwaves.

Community radio offers a third model of broadcasting beyond commercial and public service radio.  The idea is that community radio stations broadcast content that is popular and relevant to a specific local audience which may be overlooked by commercial or mass-media broadcasters. These non-commercial stations will broadcast local news, independent music, arts and other diverse programming specific to a geographic area or community of interest.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently in the process of making rules for Low-Power FM (LPFM) radio stations.

According to the Prometheus Radio Project , a non-profit organization founded by a group of radio activists, “The act’s passage is a major victory for community radio, permitting hundreds or thousands of groups to launch LPFM radio stations that will aid their own specific community needs.”

“It may take up to a year (the summer of 2012) before the FCC is ready to accept applications,” said Brandy Doyle, policy director of the Prometheus Radio Project.  “For now, interested groups can start spreading the word, look for local organizations who could run a radio station, and start having conversations about how a radio station might benefit your community.”

Carlos Pareja, training and policy director at the People’s Production House in New York believes LPFM radio could be a powerful organizing tool for immigrant communities. “The passage of the Community Radio Act creates the potential for immigrants themselves to transform the debate on immigration,” he said.  “By broadcasting their stories via a powerful and accessible medium like radio, immigrant communities can broaden the discussion around immigration, moving it from one of law enforcement and security to one that includes the many contributions immigrants bring to our society.”

Dr. Mujahid Ghazi, managing director of the Asian Broadcasting Network in Chicago agrees. “Radio has always been and still is an effective form of media for immigrant communities like the South Asian community—confronted with language and lack of awareness challenges radio means a lot.”  Dr. Ghazi who ran “Talk Radio Chicago” for 14 years has recently suspended his radio channel because of a lack of funding.

Some immigrants groups are already using low power radio to serve and connect with their communities. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers runs WCIW to organize Guatemalan farm workers in Immokalee, Florida for fair wages and better working conditions. In Oroville, California the low power station KRBS has a number of programs serving the Hmong community.

“Since the passage of the Local Community Radio Act, we now expect that immigrant communities even in major cities will finally have a chance to apply for stations,” said Doyle. “For the first time, groups in cities like Chicago, Seattle, and even New York may have the chance to run their own community radio stations.”

But the reach of community radio requires more than airwaves, it also depends on people tuning in. According to Pareja:

“The level of awareness is pretty low in immigrant communities regarding the opportunity for communities to take advantage of this extraordinary communications resource and apply for their own low power FM radio licenses.”

He added, “I believe media policy advocates should play a role in this regard.”

Janice Wise, an FCC spokesperson, said the agency was taking this into account. “We will do outreach as well as promote the window that will be open to apply for the LPFM radio lisences, on our web pages,” she said.

“Immigrant communities need to contact organizations within their communities: faith-based organizations like mosques, churches and others community anchors like employment centers or settlement houses and ask if they’re aware of the Community Radio Act,” said Mr. Pareja, “Work with them to gauge their capacity to run a radio station or work towards building a neighborhood alliance to take on this grassroots media project.”

The ultimate goal is that, “communities will get their own voices in public broadcasting,” said Maxie Jackson, president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB), an organization representing 175 stations in the U.S.

“It’s a good news for me too, said Dr. Ghazi, “Now I may be able to bring my radio channel, Talk Radio Chicago, back ‘On Air’ again.”

Feet in Two Worlds coverage of media policy is supported by The Media Consortium.

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