Community radio stations are multiplying in numbers but legal considerations and fair regulatory provisions for them are a worldwide challenge. UNESCO’s report, Tuning into development: an international comparative survey of community broadcasting regulation, provides some insight on the situation in more than 30 countries as well as the linkages between local policy development and international standards.
Advancements in listening technology make it easy to wonder if HD, DAB satellite and podcasts will make FM radio a thing of the past. The answer is clearly “No” as millions of listeners continue to listen to their old stations and governments carry on supporting FM radio to facilitate public space for smaller communities whose needs are not covered by mainstream media. Support is sparse, and needs are great including giving community radios the opportunity to operate legally and on fair grounds.
A relatively recent stimulus for dedicated regulatory regimes demonstrates the important role community media plays in fostering democratic development. In Latin America for example, Argentina and Uruguay have passed new laws that are highly supportive of the community media sector, each reserving 33 percent of FM frequencies for non-profit stations. Where the medium is embraced in Africa and Asia, it has grown exponentially, sometimes becoming the dominant information medium to promote women’s and children’s rights, encourage education, teach good hygiene and sanitation practices, raise awareness about HIV prevention services, and support agriculture extension.
In a recent development not mentioned in UNESCO’s report, the US Federal Communication Commission has invited local groups to submit license applications to run new low power FM radio stations providing a first-time opportunity for small community radio licenses in twenty years. In the United Kingdom, the broadcast regulator Ofcom warns applicants that they need to be aware of issues related to FM frequency availability. On the flip side, more communities wish to have a share in the frequencies allocated for community media, including minority language groups throughout Europe.
By exploring a range of local approaches and offering some insight to advance the legal recognition of community broadcasters, UNESCO’s 87-page report hopes to encourage partnerships and innovative measures that will facilitate the future sustainability of community media. It underlines international standards that need to be considered by legislative and regulatory frameworks to foster rather than inhibit the development of the community broadcasting sector.