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Community radio stations are an American treasure. They supply much-needed hyper-local news, give a voice to local up-and-coming artists, and are not afraid to play artists and music genres that big stations often ignore. In doing so, they create a sense of community that is unique and important. Sadly, these local cornerstones are struggling to survive against the Big Radio corporations.

Corporate media behemoths are thwarting community stations’ efforts to compete, while, in many cases, systematically gobbling them up and stripping them for parts. And each time a radio giant seizes a local station, it seems to end the same way: with local jobs being cut.

This trend is playing out across the country. With the future of live and local programming hanging in the balance, it's critical that we ensure small radio stations have a level playing field.

We need to do right by truly local stations by helping them thrive. We can do that, first, by giving them the ability to reach a larger audience. Many small stations have asked to boost their wattage so they can be heard by more listeners, but the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the trade and advocacy group for American radio and TV broadcasters, has opposed their requests, following the will of some of its largest members, who cite concerns that it would disrupt the signals of bigger broadcasters. The outcome is predictable: Big Radio continues growing its foothold, while diverse alternatives with deeper connections to our local communities are held back.

Another thing we can do for small stations, whether they are commercial or not, is give them more certainty about their costs. Momentum is building in Congress to require broadcasters to finally compensate artists for the music they play on AM/FM radio — just as streaming and digital platforms do, and as is already the case for radio broadcasters in every other democratic nation in the world. A bipartisan piece of legislation that would do just that, the American Music Fairness Act (AMFA), made historic progress last year — and the musicFIRST Coalition, which I co-chair, is committed to ensuring it becomes law.

While the bill’s primary focus is on providing artists with the fair compensation they are due for the use of their work on AM/FM radio, it also ensures that small broadcasters can continue to thrive.

The legislation’s broad protections recognize that small radio stations should be treated differently than Big Radio. While large corporate broadcasters would be rightfully required to pay market value for the songs they use, AMFA would guarantee that small broadcasters — defined as those that make less than $1.5 million or have parent companies that make less than $10 million in annual revenue — would pay less than $2 per day for unlimited music in perpetuity. Roughly 63 percent of all AM/FM music stations — which amounts to over 5,300 stations in total, based on 2020 data — would qualify for these protections, which would provide small stations with the certainty and predictability they need to continue playing music and serving small and medium-sized communities far into the future. That’s why a robust coalition of small broadcasters and their allies have spoken out in support of the legislation, calling it a “balanced approach.”

As the co-chair of the musicFIRST Coalition, I am advocating for music fairness to become the law of the land this year, for artists and small broadcasters alike. And if the NAB is serious about supporting all of America’s broadcasters, it will join us in our efforts by ending its objections to boosting the reach of small stations and supporting the American Music Fairness Act.

Small radio stations serve American communities in a myriad of critical ways, ranging from the jobs they create to the hyperlocal content, public safety information and music from new artists they provide. It’s time for the NAB and Big Radio to stop standing in the way and make sure these local treasures can not only survive, but thrive.

Mark Pryor is the co-chairman of the musicFIRST Coalition. He represented Arkansas in the United States Senate from 2003-2015.

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