Thursday, May 22, 2008

Full Power Series #4: Progressive Perogatives

Mary Francis of the Norman Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

This post by FMC contributor Mike Janssen is the latest in a series profiling groups that applied for noncommercial FM radio licenses last fall. Thousands of nonprofit organizations around the country are waiting for the Federal Communications Commission to determine whether it will grant their applications. The FCC will award licenses over the next few years, potentially bringing fresh and unheard voices to the airwaves.

The next radio station to sign on in Norman, Oklahoma, might be operated by a religious group, much like the majority of the stations already serving the market. But this one would sound like few other religious stations. In fact, it would be devotedly secular—which is exactly the point.

“We’re getting pretty darn tired of listening to all the religious programming here in Oklahoma,” says Mary Francis, a retired teacher of reading and former public radio commentator. Seeking to counter central Oklahoma’s conservative culture and right-wing Christian broadcasters, the passionate activist recently took up a new cause. She’s now leading the charge to start a progressive FM radio station under the auspices of the Norman Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (NUUF).

Unitarians call their faith a religion, but their congregations often welcome atheists, agnostics and pagans as readily as Christians and Jews. Likewise, the NUUF’s radio station would set up a big tent, airing diverse musical genres, connecting Norman’s social service organizations, and covering local issues that would otherwise get little coverage. For example, Francis says, the station could promote groups that address the needs of children, homeless people and African American men returning to free life after serving prison sentences. And it could focus on topics such as Norman’s storm-water problems and rural farmers upset about federal livestock standards.

The station would also air Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! and other left-leaning fare. City residents can listen to a local NPR affiliate, but the station does not air progressive programming such as Goodman’s show.

Francis, a feisty 65-year-old, talks and writes with enthusiasm about her drive to spice up the airwaves. She learned about the opportunity to apply for a station from a fellow Unitarian who serves on the board of the Pacifica Foundation, a progressive radio network that produces programming and operates five FM stations around the country. With help from Pacifica and its partners in the Radio For People coalition (which included FMC) Francis raised funds, found legal and technical aid and prepared the NUUF’s application.

“When I started this, I knew absolutely nothing about radio or applying for an FCC license,” she says, laughing. “This has been the steepest learning curve of my life, I guarantee you.”

Francis and her fellow would-be broadcasters have been cheered to find enthusiastic support from their Norman neighbors. The NUUF has raised more than $5,000 from 275 contributors, many of whom are not Unitarians, Francis says. The group has also applied to the national Unitarian organizing body for an additional $5,000. Meanwhile, other supporters have promised loans to cover $100,000 in station construction costs.

If the station’s application for an FCC permit is granted, the NUUF would ask for additional funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and from the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, which assists public broadcasters with technical costs. And Pacifica has offered Francis’s group a year of free programming, “so we are darn well going to take advantage of that,” she says.

Like many other applicants, Francis must wait to learn whether her application will prevail because of potential conflicts with the signals of other would-be broadcasters. She is confident, however, that the FCC will decide on her request within a year—the NUUF’s application conflicts with only two other broadcasters, and Francis believes their status as a local nonprofit will give them an edge. Until then, the group will begin to publicize its efforts via podcasts and Web streams.

These may be the NUUF’s first steps toward spawning what Francis envisions as a growing national chorus of progressive voices. The movement could start by uniting Unitarian congregations, but grow to encompass other progressives as well, Francis says. A city in the Bible Belt’s buckle might seem like an odd place for such a movement to find a foothold, but that seems to make the matter all the more urgent to Francis.

“I think that the whole nation will go through a major change come November,” she says. “And I think Oklahoma will see a major change as well.”

Mike Janssen served as Project Manager on FMC's Full Power Initiative, recruiting arts and cultural groups to apply for noncommercial stations and assisting applicants throughout the process. He is a freelance writer, editor and leader of media workshops in the Washington, D.C., area. Visit his website at

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