FCC finds space on radio dial for low-power stations

Friday, January 21, 2000

The Federal Communications Commission yesterday approved a new class of low-power, noncommercial radio stations designed to allow a greater diversity of voices and viewpoints to be transmitted over the nation's airwaves.

“Every day, it seems, we read about a bigger merger and more consolidation, all of which leads to the perception that the interests of small groups and individuals are being lost, and that important voices and viewpoints are being shut out,” said FCC Chairman William Kennard, who has aggressively pushed for low-power licenses for the past two years. “The possibility of opening up available spectrum in the FM band has sparked creativity.”

With the approval of the new plan yesterday, Kennard said he hoped that hundreds of low-power radio stations would pop up on FM radio by the start of summer, offering listeners everything from on-air forums to foreign-language programming to regional music.

But the license plan, approved on a 4-1 vote, might face legal obstacles from high-power, commercial broadcasters who claim the influx of new stations will damage the limits of the broadcast spectrum.

“The FCC has chosen advancement of social engineering over spectrum integrity. It's a sad day for radio listeners,” said Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents most of the licensed broadcasters in this country. “NAB will review every option to undo the damage caused by low-power radio.”

For years, the NAB has aggressively opposed the operation of low-power radio stations, nearly all of which operate illegally at the present time.

But these low-power broadcasters — called “pirates” by some — contend that they have a First Amendment right to the airwaves and that the FCC violated the public's free-speech rights by dropping low-power licenses in 1978.

The FCC opened the issue to public comment in January 1999 after it voted 4-1 to consider proposals to create thousands of new, licensed FM stations ranging in power from 1 watt to 1,000 watts. The agency received more than 3,000 replies by the time it stopped accepting comments last November.

After reviewing the comments, the FCC decided to create two new types of noncommercial, educational licenses: one for stations with 50 to 100 watts and one for stations with 10 watts.

To secure a low-power radio license, a group must be a governmental agency or a private, nonprofit educational organization or association that doesn't have ownership in an existing station. No group will be allowed to own more than one low-power station nationwide until at least 2002.

The applicants must also show that their organization is headquartered, operates a campus or has three-fourths of the membership within 10 miles of the station they seek to operate. The licenses will be valid for 8-year, renewable terms if the station broadcasts at least 36 hours each week.

Broadcasters who have operated without a license may be eligible for a low-power license only if they stopped their illegal broadcasts within 24 hours after being warned by FCC agents or had voluntarily agreed to stop those broadcasts no later than Feb. 26, 1999.

As with license applicants for higher power stations, the FCC will require low-power license applicants to demonstrate that their signals won't interfere with existing FM stations.

Commissioners say they expect considerable competition for the new licenses and will use a point system to rank multiple applicants. Such a system would favor those broadcasters who have established a community presence and pledge to air at least eight hours of local programming daily.

As did Kennard, Commissioners Gloria Tristani and Susan Ness said they approved the plan because they felt that the 1996 Telecommunications Act effectively diminished the number of station owners. Tristani noted that while the number of stations nationwide had increased 4% since the act's passage, the number of station owners had dropped 12%.

“The new low-power radio service we are adopting is a partial antidote to the negative effects of consolidation,” Tristani said. “It promotes localism and diversity not by limiting the rights of existing voices, but by adding new voices to the mix. Under the First Amendment, this is the best kind of response. The answer is more speech, not less.”

But Commissioner Michael Powell, who approved the overall plan, dissented from the part of the plan that said low-power stations would increase diversity. He said the FCC failed to examine the effects such stations might have on existing stations with smaller audiences and limited budgets, particularly those owned by minorities and women.

“These stations have struggled to survive as independent voices against the rising tide of consolidation brought on by the economic stress of small-scale production,” Powell said. “It would be a perverse result, indeed, if these stations were to fail or the quality of locally originated programming suffer, because new [low-power FM] stations diluted their already tenuous base of support.”

Although the new stations would be noncommercial, Powell said their presence would take away dollars with their underwriting or hurt by taking away audience share.

Harold Furchtgott-Roth, who voted against the entire plan, said the FCC failed to perform the proper technical studies to ensure that potential stations wouldn't interfere with existing stations. The effort to create low-power radio licenses, he said, “has been marked by a rush to judgment.”

Furchtgott-Roth also said the nation's largest radio markets have no room for the new stations, noting that Houston has space on the dial for just one 100-watt station. Cities like Washington, D.C., and Miami may have room for three or four such stations, while rural areas may support dozens of low-power radio stations.

“So much for the goal of creating low power stations to serve urban communities,” Furchtgott-Roth said. “There will be precious few new licensees in urban markets.”

Phillip Taylor, a reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance correspondent for the First Amendment Center.