FCC chairman stumps for low-power FM

Friday, February 19, 1999

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — A former college broadcaster who is now the nation's top telecommunications policymaker went to a familiar setting yesterday to promote his new vision for low-power FM broadcasting.

William Kennard...
Photo by Max Cacas
William Kennard and Adam Longo

William Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, wistfully recalled his days as a student radio talk-show host and producer during a live news interview program at the University of Maryland's student radio station, WMUC-FM.

He told station news director Adam Longo, who hosted the program, “At every campus — and I've learned that this campus is no exception — there is a group of students who spend more time at the student radio station than in class. I was one of those students when I was in class at Stanford University.”

Kennard's own public-affairs show on Stanford's KZSU “did some groundbreaking work,” he said. “We decided that there was a need for the campus community to be more integrated into the community at large. We produced public affairs shows that would try to bring the campus community closer to the African-American community, in the outlying areas of the campus. It had an impact on all of us, not only students, just as I know [WMUC] is having a great impact on your lives. That's why we need more stations like this one.”

Late last month, the FCC voted 4 to 1 to give tentative approval to Kennard's plan to create a new class of low-power FM radio stations, transmitting at between 1 and 1,000 watts of power. The move would reverse a 20-year old FCC ban, mandated by Congress, that effectively outlawed the licensing of radio stations of under 1,000 watts.

WMUC received its 10-watt noncommercial license in the late 1970s, and is among only 133 such stations nationwide allowed to keep its low-power license after the rule change.

“We need more outlets for local expression,” said Kennard, “that's what low-power radio is all about for schools and universities, or community groups, state and local governments, independent radio producers, civil rights groups. We need more access and more voices on the airwaves, and that's why I'm so interested in low-power FM.”

Two guests on the program echoed Kennard's point about the need for more access to the airwaves:

  • Kennard's proposal could put on the air some “carrier current” stations that now can be heard only in dorms and classrooms. Student Rob Carlson, chief engineer of the student radio station at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County in Catonsville, Md., said his 19-year-old AM station uses the decades-old carrier current technology, which uses the campus electrical system to transmit a signal. Carlson's station also Webcasts on the Internet, but he says, “You can't walk around campus with a computer at your side.” A low-power, over-the-air FM license, Carlson said, would give his station the ability to serve not only the campus, but also surrounding communities in suburban Baltimore that are not served by the city's bigger commercial stations.

  • The proposal would also help Kevin McGoy, principal of Brookland High School, in Brookland, Ark., a community of about 12,000 people. In a telephone interview during the program, McGoy told the FCC chairman he would like to set up a low-power FM station for his school, which has about 1,100 students, to expand educational and career opportunities. “We're not looking for a money-making venture, we're looking for something for an educational purpose, and to connect our school more with the community. We just want to give our students an opportunity to learn.”

    Kennard's low-power FM proposal has drawn criticism from commercial broadcasters, including the National Association of Broadcasters. During the WMUC program, those concerns were voiced by Ken Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., a ranking member of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, which oversees the FCC. In a prerecorded interview, Johnson said Tauzin was urging the FCC to “go slow” on such a major policy change, and suggested that it was the FCC's job to carry out policy implemented by Congress, and not the other way around.

    William Kennard...
    Photo by Max Cacas
    William Kennard

    Kennard responded that the FCC was indeed moving cautiously in considering the low-power FM proposal. But he said the FCC must “do what Congress has directed us to do, which is maximize the use of the radio spectrum for all Americans. That's our job.”

    Johnson also said his boss was concerned that the new low-power FM stations could create unwanted interference to existing stations, and could even give a platform to hate groups, such as those led by David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan.

    Kennard said the FCC was mandated to ensure that new stations don't interfere with existing ones, and cited the First Amendment in rejecting the “hate group” argument.

    “Should we, for example, regulate content on the Internet, because there are Web sites by hate groups like the Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan? Of course not. We have a longstanding tradition in this country that cherishes more speech and more voices.”

    Kennard noted that most of the concerns voiced about low-power FM were similar to those heard during debates over other new communications technologies, such as low-power television, cable television, direct broadcast satellites and digital-audio radio.

    “All of these technologies were ultimately authorized by the FCC, but initially, it created a lot of anxiety and nervousness, because anytime you authorize a new service, the incumbents get nervous, and understandably so,” Kennard said. “But the FCC has always been at its best, has had its shining hours, when its authorizing new technologies.”