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 More power to low-power!

 Douglas Wolk

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 before.) 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 possible.


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