More power to low-power!

Broadcasters balk as the FCC considers opening up the radio airwaves

Published April 15, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

The number of voices heard on American radio keeps shrinking, as local
stations lose ground bit by bit to a few big companies' stranglehold on
ownership and programming. Federal Communications Commission Chairman
William Kennard has proposed a solution that would be the biggest
development the airwaves have seen in decades: opening up the FM spectrum
to new, small stations that could serve neighborhood, community and
educational needs. It's a great idea -- for everyone but the big broadcasters
who own the dial now, and who are lobbying to shut out the communities that
would benefit from low-power radio.

The FCC's proposal would permit new stations of 100 or 1,000 watts,
as well as 1- to 10-watt "micro-radio" stations whose broadcast range would
cover a single neighborhood. The low-power radio (LPR) stations might be
non-commercial, and might be exempt from larger stations' service rules,
which would make them cheaper to start and operate. Of the five
commissioners, Kennard and Gloria Tristani seem firmly in favor of
permitting LPR licenses, and Harold Furchtgott-Roth seems firmly against it
(he's something of a contrarian libertarian, and he's clashed with Kennard
) Michael Powell and Susan Ness are the swing voters, whose statements
suggest that they basically like the idea but have concerns about technical
issues. The FCC's policy is to invite public input on its proposals; it's
accepting comments on this one until June 1. (If you're interested, see the
FCC Low-Power FM page.)

A source at the FCC says that they've received thousands of public
comments already, the vast majority of them supporting low-power FM. The
major exception is, unsurprisingly, the people who've got stations already,
the National Association of Broadcasters. The overall number of American radio
station owners has dropped by 1,000 in the past four years, and four large
companies collectively own more than 1,000 stations; that's bad for listeners whose
local programming is progressively vanishing to centralized, syndicated content,
but it's good for the big owners' business. It's no surprise they don't want to see radio's
biodiversity increase. "Our assumption is that it all comes down to
economics, to competition," says Michael Bracy of the Low Power Radio Commission, "so they're going to
come up with whatever arguments they can to limit the number of competitors
in the marketplace."

A "Low Power FM Kit" sent by the NAB to radio stations in March
calls on them to fight the proposal tooth and nail;
among other things, it reprints an astonishingly snotty article from Radio Business Report
suggesting that LPR advocates just want to waste precious airspace on music
that sounds "like sick cats running over hot coals." But the NAB's main
tactic at the moment is framing the fight for listeners' attention as a fight
for airspace. The new stations, they claim, would damage the integrity and
impede the reception of current broadcasters' signals. That's a curious
argument to make. Any new stations that would be eligible for a license
couldn't interfere with existing stations anyway -- low-power radio is not
the same thing as pirate radio -- and, in fact, part of the point of creating
these smaller stations is that they'd fit where larger ones wouldn't. It
seems more likely that the NAB is scared of losing market share and ad
revenue; the fact that they feel entitled to keep the airwaves all to
themselves is exactly why the FCC ought to make more homegrown competition

By Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the author of the books "Reading Comics" and "James Brown's Live at the Apollo," and has contributed to a variety of periodicals, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The Believer.

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