Community Radio

Andy Opel. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publications, 2009.

The history of American community radio is a story of social struggle over media technology. From the earliest radio broadcasters to the present, questions of who can own a radio station and whether or not that station should be based on commercial support continue to be a source of public debate and government policy decisions. Community radio emerged in response to commercial radio, attempting to offer diverse political viewpoints as well as a wide range of musical and cultural products. News and information on community radio often challenges mainstream journalism and politics while providing an outlet for local public affairs programming.


Community radio is a product of the media system established through the combination of government policy and private enterprise. From the Radio Act of 1927, which established the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), to the Communications Act of 1934, establishing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, tensions between commercial and nonprofit broadcasters have been central to the policy debate around media regulation in the United States.

The debates around media regulation are in large part based on the concept of spectrum scarcity. The limited broadcast spectrum restricts the number of radio stations that can operate in any one location. The radio spectrum has historically been seen as part of the public domain, and any station granted access to this spectrum was using a public resource and, therefore, in the words of the Communications Act of 1934, had an obligation to operate in the “public interest.” How this interest is best served—through the market forces of commercially driven radio or through nonprofit, listener-sponsored radio—remains an active area of debate.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s, other countries were working to reconcile the debate between commercial versus noncommercial radio. For example, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) became a state owned but independently operated entity in 1927. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was established in 1932 as a publicly owned and operated radio network that would later expand to television. These models inspired a media reform movement in the United States, composed of educational broadcasters, organized labor, farmers, religious groups, and others who were dissatisfied with radio’s domination by commercial interests like the NBC and CBS networks. The noncommercial broadcast advocates largely lost the debate in the United States, resulting in the current system of commercially dominated radio punctuated by a small number of public and community radio stations.

Pacifica and the Rise of Community Radio

Lewis Hill is considered the father of community radio. As a pacifist and conscientious objector to World War II, Hill had firsthand experience with minority viewpoints that were shut out of the mainstream commercial media system. In 1946, Hill founded the Pacifica Foundation with the goal of promoting pacifism through education. In 1949, the foundation launched KPFA, the United States’ first listener-supported community radio station. It rejected funding from both corporations and the government, relying instead on listener donations. KPFA’s programming was politically and aesthetically diverse, creating a model that other stations followed.

With the help and coordination of the Pacifica Foundation, the KPFA model was extended to a second San Francisco Bay station, then replicated in 1959 with the introduction of KPFK in Los Angeles and in 1960, the network expanded across the country to include WBAI in New York. KPFT Houston was added in 1970 and WPFW in Washington, D.C., was added in 1977. These five stations form the Pacifica network, along with a series of affiliate stations that rebroadcast syndicated programming.

Drawing on the Pacifica model, Lorenzo Milam created KRAB in Seattle, Washington, in 1962. Hoping to avoid the constraints and left leaning politics of the Pacifica network, KRAB strived to maintain an open forum for the local community. Milam assisted other groups across the country as they attempted to launch community radio stations, including KBOO in Portland, Oregon, in 1968 and KUSP in Santa Cruz, California, in 1972. Milam is also credited with pioneering the fundraising marathon concept, a model now replicated by most every noncommercial radio station, including affiliates of National Public Radio.

The political viewpoints expressed on community radio stations often elicited strong reactions, both positive and negative. KPFA and the Pacifica Foundation were repeatedly charged with being communists and in 1962, the foundation board appeared before a U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which was investigating so-called communist infiltration. The diversity of programming on KRAB earned praise from the American Civil Liberties Union and The New York Times, as well as local Seattle news media outlets. Other stations were not as readily accepted, such as KPFT Houston, whose studios were bombed off the air twice by the Ku Klux Klan in its first 12 months of operation.

Independence was the hallmark of community radio throughout the politically charged eras of the cold war, McCarthyism, the Vietnam War, and the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s. These stations provided airtime for the expression of dissenting and minority viewpoints, uninhibited from the commercially driven radio stations that dominated the airwaves.

Low Power FM and Radio Activism

The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which in turn formed National Public Radio (NPR) but also created some new obstacles for noncommercial community radio. The 1967 act required a station to have five full-time staff members and a transmitter with a minimum of 3,000 watts of power to be eligible for federal financial assistance. At the time more than 80 percent of noncommercial stations did not meet these requirements, and most of these stations relied on a combination of listener support and government grants. Many of these outlets included small, low-power class D (less than 100 watts) FM stations run by schools, churches, and community organizations. In 1978, the FCC stopped accepting class D applications and made existing class D stations subject to displacement by full-power outlets.

These changes in FCC radio policy set the stage for the struggle over low power FM radio (LPFM) in the late 1980s and 1990s. Like the pioneers of listener sponsored community radio, LPFM activists sought to challenge the form and content of commercial media while communicating with a very local audience. Before LPFM licenses became available, activists challenged the FCC and the way the radio spectrum was being regulated. Using direct action techniques, activists began creating small illegal radio stations and using these stations as models for community radio.

In 1986, Mbanna Kantako began operating WTRA, Black Liberation Radio, in Springfield, Illinois. WTRA was a small radio station operated from Kantako’s apartment in a public housing project. When the FCC tried to shut the station down, the National Lawyers Guild Committee on Democratic Communication took on the case to defend Kantako’s right to broadcast. The legal defense developed during this case became the basis for the legal challenge that would eventually lead to the authorization of LPFM service in 2001.

In 1993, Stephen Dunifer started Free Radio Berkeley, an unlicensed LPFM radio station in California. Through a series of court cases over the next seven years and building on the arguments developed in the Kantako case, Dunifer argued that the FCC ban on LPFM stations was in violation of the Communications Act of 1934, which required broadcasters to use the “minimum amount of power necessary to carry out the communication desired.” Dunifer also demonstrated the feasibility of LPFM, proving that spectrum space existed even in a place as congested as the San Francisco Bay Area. The National Lawyers Guild also assisted Dunifer with his defense and their arguments proved to be persuasive. California District Judge Wilken asked if a “total ban on new licensing of micro radio broadcasting the least restrictive means available to protect against chaos in the airwaves?” (Opel 2004, 9). The court’s acceptance of Dunifer’s arguments became a significant challenge to the FCC.

The struggle over LPFM gained strength with the emergence of the Internet. Activists shared information about how to start small radio stations as well as what to do when the FCC came knocking. The Prometheus Radio Project in Philadelphia began a “barn raising” process where volunteers traveled around the country helping community groups get LPFM stations up and running over the course of a weekend. The combination of direct action, legal challenges, and local and national media coverage led to an FCC decision in 2000 to authorize LPFM stations for the first time in 20 years. This rule allowed for stations to broadcast with up to 1,000 watts of power, required that the station be operated by a nonprofit organization, limited ownership to one station, and the organization operating the radio station had to be located in the community where the station broadcast.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) opposed the licensing of LPFM stations, arguing that the new stations would cause interference with existing broadcasters. NPR also opposed the LPFM initiative, arguing in part that the limited spectrum space would be better used for translators that would rebroadcast existing public radio signals to outlying areas. In response to pressure from the NAB and NPR, the U.S. Congress amended the FCC’s LPFM initiative with the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000. This act set a more restrictive standard for separation of stations on the radio dial, revising the FCC’s proposal and limiting the number of potential LPFM to a small fraction of the potential number in the original proposal. The stations that have been licensed under the more restrictive policy are in small cities and rural areas. Examples of existing LPFM stations include WRFU-LP, The Socialist Forum in Urbana, Illinois; WEHB-LP, First United Methodist Church in Wadesboro, North Carolina; and KUVC-LP, Ukiah Community Radio in Ukiah, California.

By 2007, the FCC had issued over 1,000 licenses and LPFM stations were operating in all 50 states in the United States, offering everything from diverse music, languages, and political and religious programming. The creation of LPFM is the largest growth of community radio since the pioneering efforts of Lewis Hill and Lorenzo Milam.

International Community Radio

Often cited as a small part of U.S. radio history, community radio has had a significant impact on developing countries around the world. Community radio has been credited with playing significant roles in political and social struggles across the globe. From Colombia to the Philippines, Tanzania to Korea, small, locally owned and operated community radio stations have played a major role in what scholars have referred to as “participatory communication for social change” (Dargon 2001, 18).

According to a 2001 Rockefeller Foundation Report, the power and influence of community radio in developing countries is a result of five factors. First, the technology is affordable for both the broadcaster and the listener. Second, the listening format is valuable for illiterate populations in rural areas. Third, local traditions and cultures can be shared through local radio. Fourth, the equipment requires little maintenance and programming is dependent on community involvement. Finally, the convergence between radio and the Internet is creating powerful new networking opportunities.

Radio Izcanal in Nueva Granada, El Salvador, is an example of international community radio. Started in 1992 by civil war refugees, Radio Izcanal is an example of participatory media that is owned and operated by the community. This station serves the local indigenous populations with programming geared to the Nahua and Mayan cultures.

Radio Gune Yi in Dakar, Senegal, is run by children for children, funded by PLAN International, a nonprofit children’s relief organization. Because children make up more than half the total population in Senegal, Radio Gune Yi was established to empower children and offer them an opportunity to speak directly to their community about issues that concern them. Both these examples face pressures similar to those felt by community broadcasters in the United States—lack of funding, commercial pressures for frequency space, and continued training of volunteer staff.

The World Bank Institute began the Grassroots Media Program in 2000, designed to strengthen community radio in developing countries. This program has projects in South America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Similarly, the United Nations has actively supported the development and maintenance of community radio stations through the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The power and potential of international community radio are detailed in the documentary film, The Agronomist (2004), in which Radio Haiti and the work of Jean Dominique are portrayed in the context of the economic and political struggles of Haiti during the 1980s and 1990s.


Community radio plays a significant role in the marketplace of ideas both in the United States and around the world. Community radio broadcasters pioneered the concept of listener supported media, as well as the fundraising marathon. By avoiding the commercial influences of advertising, community broadcasters offer diverse programming that is often left out of most commercial radio. At the same time, the lack of advertising dollars makes funding an ongoing problem for most every community radio station, resulting in a reliance on volunteers, low-paid staff, and constrained programming possibilities. Combining eclectic music with diverse and sometimes offensive political viewpoints, these stations offer local citizens the opportunity to speak to their local communities. Community stations have expanded the range of debate on critical social issues—war and peace, the environment, health care, the public education system, and more. In an environment of consolidated media dominated by a few large corporations, these stations are the few remaining outlets for the expression of minority viewpoints and lesser known cultural material.