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August 24, 2007

A Low Power Radio Katrina Story and Bill Moyers talks with Hannah Sassaman and Rick Karr

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL. There was lots of talk about Iraq on the home front this week but coverage of the war has actually been diminishing during the second quarter of this year, crowded out by the presidential race. Less coverage of real news usually means Jon Stewart moves into the vacuum to get at the truth with fake news, and that's just what he did this week, sending Senior Correspondent Rob Riggle to Baghdad for a series of reports.

JON STEWART: With full team coverage on the story Aasif Mandvi and Rob Riggle join us live from Baghdad. Nice to see you boys. Aasif, Give us your report first.

AASIF MANDVI: John, I'm embedded with the 101st Airborne, just a few clicks south of downtown Baghdad.

ROB RIGGLE: Whoa whoa whoa. Aasif, what are you doing?

AASIF MANDVI: Same as you, going the extra mile to get the real story.

ROB RIGGLE: Jon, I'm actually in Iraq. Alright. This is a real flack jacket, ok. This is real Iraqi gravel and sand.

AASIF MANDVI: Right, right, right, right. If you were really in Iraq, where would you get a functioning flack jacket?

BILL MOYERS: When Riggle comes home let's hope Stewart assigns him to another big story that's getting too little attention on America's front pages and evening news these days. I mean the increasing concentration of corporate control over all media. Rupert Murdoch's take over of the WALL STREET JOURNAL got a lot of attention, but most of the press paid little heed to the heart of the matter — what it means to journalism and democracy when fewer and fewer gatekeepers determine the flow of news. An outspoken commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission is here to talk about what can be done about media and democracy.

Which brings me to our first story. As Hurricane Dean churned across the Caribbean and then the Gulf of Mexico, I found myself thinking of a tiny radio station in Hancock County, Mississippi. Two years ago next Wednesday, when Hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coast, that little station-- WQRZ -- suddenly became the difference between life and death.


BILL MOYERS: My colleague Rick Karr reported our story.

RICK KARR: It was here, 60 miles east of New Orleans, that the most intense part of Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005. Winds reached 125 miles per hour, and water from the Gulf surged miles inland.

BRICE PHILLIPS: Our number one goal was to make sure that it doesn't matter what programming you run. We're just waiting for the emergency.

RADIO ANNOUNCER: This is 103.5 FM...

RICK KARR: Brice Phillips is chief engineer, general manager, and pretty much everything else for WQRZ, a non-profit, low-power FM, community radio station that serves the small towns along the Hancock County coast.

BRICE PHILLIPS: That's what that this station is designed to do, was to be 24/7, and we were going to build it to where it was survivable by any natural disaster. Especially hurricanes.

RICK KARR: The water got to the point where it was up above our heads where we're standing right now, right?

BRICE PHILLIPS: Oh, yeah, it was halfway up that roof.

RICK KARR: Thanks to Brice Phillips, WQRZ managed to stay on the air throughout Katrina and its aftermath when most of the commercial radio stations in the path of the storm went silent.

BRICE PHILLIPS: I didn't know that all of the rest of those stations were out. I had no clue. I think I'm one of 1,000. But I'm just serving my own community. I had no clue that I was one of four out of 41 that survived.

RICK KARR: Out of 41?

BRICE PHILLIPS: Radio stations.



RICK KARR: On the Gulf Coast?

BRICE PHILLIPS: Yes. And into New Orleans.

RICK KARR: So 90% of the stations went off the air-

BRICE PHILLIPS: That's correct.

RICK KARR: But you managed to stay on?


RICK KARR: Do you think WQRZ saved lives during this storm?

BRIAN "HOOTY" ADAM: I think so. Absolutely.

RICK KARR: Brian Adam, whom just about everyone calls by his nickname "Hooty" - directs Hancock County's emergency operations center.

BRIAN ADAM: Well, just him putting out our evacuation orders and staying on the air 24 hours with no sleep, him constantly saying, "Folks, this is going to be bad. The Weather Service says it's going to be bad. The National Hurricane Center says it's going to be bad. Ya'll need to please leave."

RICK KARR: Small radio stations like WQRZ are important to their communities because they can focus on the specific needs and issues in those communities.

BOB McCHESNEY: If you look at radio, it's extraordinary inexpensive compared other media, compared to television. It's ideally suited for local ownership. Doesn't take a lot of capital. It's almost cheaper than doing a Web site, in fact. I mean if you get right down to it, the costs are that low. And it's accessible to anyone that's got a radio, which basically means it's ubiquitous.

RICK KARR: But big media companies have caused hundreds of small, local stations to lose touch with their communities: in 1996, broadcasting conglomerates lobbied legislators to remove the limit on the number of radio stations one firm could own; Congress passed the law, and President Bill Clinton signed it.

BOB McCHESNEY: Almost immediately after that, ClearChannel, Infinity Radio, the biggest media companies in radio that were maxed out then with 40 stations or close to it, went on a buying binge, and buying up station after station after station in a two year race to gobble up as many stations as humanly possible. And by the end of the sort of deluge, three years later you had a company like ClearChannel with 1,200 radio stations. 1,200 radio stations.

RICK KARR: The new mega-media chains fired local staff and piped in syndicated shows.

BOB McCHESNEY: As the ownership has become increasingly concentrated what we're seeing is that local coverage basically is being stripped out everywhere. Local journalism, local news rooms, community media basically doesn't make a lot of profits for these firms. Syndicated stuff does. So in community after community we're seeing there's hardly any coverage of public life.

RICK KARR: That wave of mergers alarmed the FCC. In an effort to bring local radio back to communities that'd lost it, the commission started licensing hundreds of new, local low-power FM radio stations. WQRZ is one of a few hundred nationwide, mostly in small towns and rural areas.

BOB McCHESNEY: Low power FM is an extraordinary story in a number of ways. It said basically for a few hundred dollars you can put out a pretty good signal that'll cover a city, or half of a major city, and all of a small town at low power. Well, it was despised, obviously, by the commercial broadcasters. The last thing they needed was a lot of new options on the dial that were local people doing stuff locally without ads on the air.

RICK KARR: If big media had had its way, none of the new stations would have gone on the air: the National Association of Broadcasters pressured the FCC to abandon the program, arguing that the new stations would cause interference. The Commission refused, its engineering staff said there were no grounds for concern. So the NAB went to Congress along with National Public Radio, which also worried about interference. They convinced lawmakers to cut the program by one-half.

Brice Phillips was one of the few to win one of the new licenses. He says WQRZ proves that it doesn't take much money to get a radio station on the air: he lives on social security checks he receives for a medical disability, yet before the storm, he built a transmitter shack and hundred-foot tower himself and turned a bedroom of his house into a broadcast studio. The shack and tower weathered the storm; the house didn't.

BRICE PHILLIPS: See, the house basically pulled up from the floor joist and just floated to the right and set back down, two foot.

SARA ALLEN: Things were just gone, just completely gone.

SARA ALLEN: You're listening to WQRZ...

RICK KARR: Sara Allen is a radio engineering consultant who came to Hancock County as a volunteer about a week after the storm, to help upgrade WQRZ's signal so that it could reach more of the devastated county.

SARA ALLEN: The radio station tower did survive. And that was the efforts of Brice Phillips and the foresight he had in the construction of that tower.

BRICE PHILLIPS: Ain't nothing better in the world to see that tower up there. It was just, I was elated. I couldn't even...there was no words. I was just like on cloud nine. I saw my tower and it was like, "Yeah." I couldn't believe it was still there.

RICK KARR: Allen was so impressed with Brice Phillips dedication and the station's vital role in the wake of the storm that she decided to stick around. She spent hours on the air reading announcements and spreading news.

SARA ALLEN: As broadcasters, he and I realized that that's our mission. We have to stay on the air.

SARA ALLEN: I'm Sara Allen, and I'm sitting in for Cap'n Brice Phillips...

RICK KARR: The F.C.C. allowed WQRZ to crank up its power from 100 watts to nearly 2000, enough to expand the station's reach to 30 miles. Nine months after the storm, WQRZ was still Hancock County's only broadcaster, and Brice Phillips was still airing hours of interviews and information every day from a new studio at the county emergency operations center.

BRIAN ADAM: To me, the logic behind getting him high powered status was so the whole county, and even some in Harrison County, could hear him. And, you know, we're still trying to keep his high-powered status at this time.


BRIAN ADAM: He's probably saved as many people after the storm than he did before the storm because of being able to tell them where to go get food, water, and ice.

RICK KARR: How did people in the rest of the county find out that you were on the air?

BRICE PHILLIPS: FEMA bought 3500 AM/FM radios like that one I have right up there. And they gave them out where they gave out food, water and ice. And that's how they knew where we were. Because they gave one to every survivor.

RICK KARR: So FEMA was actually telling people, "Here's some food. Here's some water. Here's some ice. Here's a radio."

BRICE PHILLIPS: Here's a radio.

RICK KARR: There are commercial stations in Biloxi and Gulfport which aren't too far from here. Weren't they doing the job that was necessary here in Hancock County to keep people apprised of what was going on?

SARA ALLEN: Generally speaking, those radio stations were providing emergency information and doing a good job at it. The problem was, is that they could not focus on Hancock County. And the needs here in Hancock County given that basically Bay Saint Louis, Waveland, Diamond Head was Ground Zero for the eye of Hurricane Katrina.

RICK KARR: How long was it underwater?

BRICE PHILLIPS: Not more than a couple hours, the whole house. And then, from the floor level down it stayed in water for two weeks, at least, you know, from the floor down. You know, this is my home.

BRICE PHILLIPS: I cannot replace my house. I don't have the money to do it. I'm on social security. I get 500 bucks a month. But there's no way that I can rebuild my house much less the studio. You know? So actually in a way, that's why I'm in this level of service to my community. Because when you're left with a last resource, you share it with your friends, you share it with your family and you share it with each other.

RICK KARR: What makes you want to give and share when you've lost everything?

BRICE PHILLIPS: It's what you do. I didn't get into public radio not to share. Otherwise, I'd be in commercial radio.

BILL MOYERS: There are about 800 low-power stations in America that give back to their communities like QRZ. Community, based non-commercial radio station aimed specifically at listeners within three to five miles of the transmitter. Low power radio emerged seven years ago and was quickly quashed by the National Association of Broadcasters, the powerful lobbying arm of corporate media. Now, there's another proposal in Congress to try again, to expand low power FM to big cities and to small communities alike. That would create more coverage of events like school board meetings, town meetings and civic groups. We'll talk about the possibilities with my guests.

BILL MOYERS: Rick Karr, who reported our story on QRZ, has written about the low power radio movement. You've heard him over the years on National Public Radio and on several of PBS broadcasts including my own. In addition to covering the media, he teaches journalism at Columbia University here in New York.

Hannah Sassaman has actually built low power FM stations, most recently in the countryside of Kenya in Africa. She helped set up an emergency station on the Gulf Coast after Katrina as well. Go to PBS dot-org and you'll learn about her work with the non-profit Prometheus radio project which is dedicated to building low power FM stations and listeners across the country. Welcome to both of you.


BILL MOYERS: Rick Karr, what's at stake in this issue?

RICK KARR: Well, what's at stake is whether or not local people can hear local news and information and culture on the radio. What's happened is, is big companies have bought up radio stations across the country, local programming's disappeared. I mean, there are relatively few local news broadcasts. Very little support for local recording artists, local theater groups, very little coverage, as you said, of school board meetings, things like that. It's sort of the McDonald's approach to broadcasting. You know, you can go to a city and you're gonna hear the same thing on the dial in the same way you see the same things on McDonald's menu nationwide. What the low power movement is trying to do is create little mom and pop diners that actually offer you local flavor, local food, local sustenance.

BILL MOYERS: So what is it exactly, Hannah, that these stations do for communities when there is not a disaster?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: When there isn't a disaster, these stations build relationships between local churches and schools, between non-profits and their local government. They train the next broadcasters of America by giving them an opportunity to sit with a microphone, produce their own local news and cover things that matter in their own communities.

One of my favorite stations is KYRS which is in Spokane, Washington. Right there on Main Street, they're covering everything from local school board elections to local cultural events. And there's a big public studio that anyone can walk into. That's what radio should be. And that's what we're building with low power FM.

RICK KARR: The thing is that these stations are a lot of fun to listen to. You know, I find it really tiresome to drive across the country and hear the same things on the radio.

HANNAH SASSAMAN: There are some incredible examples all over the country. WKUF in Flint, Michigan provides the only source of local hip hop and local debate about local culture for Flint, Michigan--licensed to Kettering University. WCTI-LP, Radio Conciencia, licensed to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers puts labor voices--

BILL MOYERS: Where is that?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: That's in Immokalee, Florida. It's about 45 minutes south of Fort Myers.

BILL MOYERS: Is that where the workers had organized for their rights in the field?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: That's right.

BILL MOYERS: Do they use radio for that?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Tomato pickers are putting their local voices on the air, fighting for their rights to raise wages, to protect against human rights abuses. And they use the radio station to do it. There's also incredible leadership from stations like KOCZ-LP in Opelousas, Louisiana which was the only source for zydeco music in the city where it was founded.

BILL MOYERS: What is that?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Zydeco music is a fantastic, fantastic, local Creole cultural music that you can't really hear on ClearChannel, Cumulus or Viacom. It's something that isn't anything like Brittany Spears. Isn't anything like the Back Street Boys. It's local culture that we need to preserve on the airwaves that we own.

RICK KARR: Even Bryce Phillips down on the Gulf coast is playing music by local artists as well.

BILL MOYERS: The kind of people I used to hear when I was growing up in Marshall, Texas on KMHT.


BILL MOYERS: And you no longer get any local voices, any local music, any local culture, right?

RICK KARR: Exactly. Exactly. And, what's the name of the station, Hannah, on the Chesapeake shore? The one that's a sort of anti-sprawl station?



HANNAH SASSAMAN: And it was founded by a community that was fighting a local grocery store from building out on the Chesapeake Bay. They won their battle. They built a local radio station. And now, they feature hundreds of local musicians and local voices.

RICK KARR: And they've got children's programs and stuff like that. I mean, it's just amazing. It's the kind of freedom that radio programmers don't have, even in most public radio station.

BILL MOYERS: How do they support themselves if they are not for profit?

RICK KARR: Well, they're getting donations from the community. They're not paying their staffs, you know. The people are doing this as volunteer work.

BILL MOYERS: That's a long-range problem for independent freelance journalists. You can't make a living at this, right?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Well, one of the ways to look at it is that when these stations prove that they're absolutely essential for the lives of the communities, they become a valued piece of the community. Like WCTI-LP, for example. The Radio Conciencia Coalition of Immokalee Workers station. Not only did they get hundreds of listeners supporting that station in peace time, but when Hurricane Wilma went through in 2005, many of the listeners couldn't understand the warnings coming out on the commercial radio. They were in English and Spanish, while many of those workers spoke Zapotec, Quechua, Q'anjob'al, indigenous Mexican and Guatemalan languages. So that station, after getting calls from those workers, saved 350 people from dying in the fields of southwest Florida.

RICK KARR: The money thing is important. Because I think what Bryce Phillips at WQRZ is up against right now is that that community, Hancock County, is still really depressed economically. I just talked to him a couple of days ago. He's out of money. His station is basically broke. I mean, low power FM is cheap, but it's not free. He's poured a lot of his own resources into building the station up. He's been denied grants by a couple of different federal and state agencies. And he really doesn't know where he's gonna put his transmitter. Things are still in flux down there. Reconstruction hasn't happened. But the thing about Bryce is, he is an eternal optimist. I mean, he was laughing at me, telling me these hard luck stories. But he was laughing the whole time because he really is, I mean, you know, what you saw in that piece is really what you get. He absolutely is dedicated to the people of that community. And he says he's gonna persevere no matter what. (Read an update on Brice Phillips from Rick Karr on THE BLOG.)

BILL MOYERS: I'm told that he was turned down by FEMA for assistance to the radio?

RICK KARR: That's what he told me as well. That FEMA turned him down. That the Mississippi State Emergency Management Agency turned him down, as well. He thinks his main allies right now are at the Federal Communications Commission.


RICK KARR: Yeah. They want to keep him on the air. They want to keep him in a higher power status. They realize his is the only station that's serving that part of the Gulf Coast right now. So, he has got good allies there.

BILL MOYERS: I said in the opening that there are about 800-- actually, 817 stations, low power stations I think around the country. None, I understand, in urban areas. Why aren't there more and why aren't there more in urban areas?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Low power FM was limited by the National Association of Broadcasters back in 2000 when they convinced Congress that low power FM stations would interfere with full power stations-

BILL MOYERS: You mean that the low power would interfere with the signal going out from the--

HANNAH SASSAMAN: That there would literally be an ocean of interference. Of static on the FM dial. They're worried that if you built a station in downtown Nashville for example that you would hear crackling rather than the music that you wanted to hear or the news. So, because of that worry, Congress asked the FCC to only give out these licenses in places like Pasquo, Tennessee which is twenty miles outside of Nashville. And places like Spokane, Washington, rather than Seattle. And in places like Portsmouth, New Hampshire rather than Boston. And so, the FCC, at the behest of Congress, conducted a 2.2 million dollar study to prove that there was plenty of room for low power FM in our big cities.

BILL MOYERS: So the-- so this study showed that there-- that low power stations would not interfere with the signal?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Beyond a shadow of a doubt. This study showed that there was plenty of room for low power FM stations in big cities.

BILL MOYERS: What was public radio, NPR's position on this in 2000 when the NAB said, no, no, no, we don't want any competition from the signals.

RICK KARR: Well, NPR, National Public Radio which represents the interests of public radio stations, signed on with the NAB. Essentially, one of my sources in Washington has said to me, you know, we sort of gave the NAB political cover that Congress might not have been quite as receptive to what the commercial broadcasters were saying had the public broadcasters not been on board. Now, you know, I reported on this at the time. And I was a staffer at National Public Radio. So, I had pretty good access. And the senior executives at NPR said, no, look, we really do believe that there are signal interference issues.


RICK KARR: And even after this study came back, I sat down with Kevin Close who was at the time CEO of NPR. And he said, you know, we still-- we don't think that this study was done right. We still that there are interference issues, despite the fact that the FCC had contracted this out to an outside firm. The FCC's own engineers had said there's no threat of interference. And this was done by one of the most respected independent engineering testing firms in the country. So, NPR sort of has stayed by the NAB's side throughout this.

BILL MOYERS: But there's a new proposal now in Congress, right?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: There was a new proposal introduced right before the summer recess on June 21st. And it was bipartisan in both the Senate and in the House. The Congress took a look at that study that you were just talking about, Rick. They thought it looked perfectly great. And so, we had everyone from Lee Terry, a Republican from Omaha, Nebraska standing next to Mike Doyle, a Democrat from Pittsburgh, putting forward House Bill 2802, The Local Community Radio Act of 2007, which would bring both of those cities, as well as the entire country, thousands more low power FM radio stations.

BILL MOYERS: So this bill that's now in Congress would allow low power radio in cities.

HANNAH SASSAMAN: It would let the Hmong Center for Community Arts in Minneapolis, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a city where over fifteen groups applied for low power FM radio stations. And none of them got them because Congress smacked down and said, you can't have these stations until we prove there's plenty of room. Now, this wonderful cultural organization which depends on the spoken word to connect new immigrants to the local community and to share vital local art will have--will be able to apply and build a tool that will expand their service in their community — if we pass these bills.

RICK KARR: Well, what I want to know is, indeed bills-- bills like this have been introduced before.


RICK KARR: You know, every year for the past few years, we've had-- and actually, this kind of goes to the non-partisanship point. John McCain in the Senate has been one of the main supporters of- you know, of expanding low power FM. You know, hardly a-- anybody we'd consider to be a progressive lefty liberal. You know, because people in communities do realize that, you know, a lot of the big corporate broadcasters just aren't serving the communities, right? So, McCain has been proposing this. Yet, year after year, these bills haven't moved. Is something different this year?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: There really is something different this year. And the-- one thing-- Mr. McCain has done great work putting these bills forward. And one of the major reasons why he's done it is because he doesn't believe that the government should interfere with more community voices on the air, with more diversity. But this year is the first year that there's ever been both a bill in the Senate and in the House. And we can tell that that House bill is moving because it has 41 co-sponsors. That's the second highest number of co-sponsors of any telecommunications bill in the House right now.

BILL MOYERS: What's the-- do you know what the position of the administration is?

HANNAH SASSAMAN: The Bush administration has always been very much in favor of religious broadcasting and very much in favor of a lack of government interference in free distribution of different businesses around the country. That's a major conservative tenet, so.

RICK KARR: I'll say that one of the last things that Michael Powell, the last chairman of the FCC, did on almost his last day in office, which was he held LPFM Day, low power FM day at the FCC, where a lot of folks, the Prometheus folks were there, folks from stations across the country.

HANNAH SASSAMAN: Over a hundred local stations were represented.

RICK KARR: Yeah. And that seemed to telegraph pretty clearly that at least at that point, yeah, Michael Powell was a lame duck at that point. But at least at that point, there seemed to be backing from the administration to expand that.

HANNAH SASSAMAN: We have something even more than that. At a recent hearing held in the telecommunications sub-committee in the House of Representatives, Mike Doyle the Congress member who introduced the bill asked all five of the current FCC commissioners, three Republicans and two Democrats, if they wanted to expand low power FM. And they all did. And what we're looking at is a major endorsement from the expert agency, beyond partisanship, beyond corporate control. We need to expand low power FM. The FCC wants to do it. And we have a shot right now.

BILL MOYERS: We'll get you both back in the fall and see how this is going, all right?

RICK KARR: All right.

BILL MOYERS: Rick Karr and Hannah Sassaman of the Prometheus Project, thank you very much for being with us on the JOURNAL.

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