FCC set to vote on low-power radio

Friday, January 14, 2000

The Federal Communications Commission plans to vote next week on a low-power radio proposal designed to allow community groups, churches, schools and nonprofit organizations to legally operate their own low-watt stations.

And if the FCC approves this type of license at its Jan. 20 meeting as expected, the move would open the airwaves to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of inexpensive, non-commercial FM stations with up to 100 watts of power and a 4-mile broadcasting radius.

Some tout the vote as the most significant change to the American radio dial since the advent of FM radio. But others cast low-power radio as an irritant to legitimate stations, an effort that literally interferes with current transmissions.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents nearly all of the licensed broadcasters in this country, sent a letter Jan. 12 urging the commissioners to delay a vote until the FCC's Feb. 17 meeting to allow the agency and the NAB to discuss whether the broadcast spectrum can support low-power radio stations.

“For its entire history, the commission has had as one of its primary goals the preservation of interference-free service,” NAB President Edward Fritts wrote in a letter to FCC Chairman William Kennard. “In its low power radio proposal, it has seemed that the commission abandoned that goal.”

For more than two years, the NAB has aggressively opposed the legalization of low-power radio stations, nearly all of which operate illegally at the present time. During the same two years, the FCC has shut down nearly 500 such stations.

But these low-power broadcasters — called “pirates” by some — contend that they have a First Amendment right to the airwaves. They say that the FCC's current licensing program reserves spots on the dial only for those who pay a premium for licensing, engineering fees and equipment.

For years, the FCC offered a low-power license but dropped it in 1978 under pressure from the NAB and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Currently, the agency doesn't offer any licenses for stations under 100 watts.

But the FCC's Kennard has conceded that corporate mergers have homogenized much of radio and says low-power radio might serve the purpose of getting more diverse voices on the dial.

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.

The current proposal before the commission calls for licenses for low-cost, non-commercial stations up to 100 watts of power, says David Fiske, spokesman for the FCC. The FCC would resolve competition for frequencies by looking at local programming offered by the competing interests and other criteria and limit ownership of such stations.

Under the current proposal, many broadcasters who have operated illegal stations in the past would not be eligible for a license.

Although the FCC has lowered the proposed maximum power from 1,000 watts to 100 watts, NAB's Fritts says he isn't satisfied. He explains that testing sponsored by NAB and others found that even 100-watt signals routinely disrupt the broadcast spectrum.

In his letter to Kennard, Fritts said the FCC also has left many questions unanswered: Will there be height restrictions for low-power radio antennas? Will the FCC limit the number of low-power stations in medium and small markets? Will the FCC restrict ownership? Will the agency conduct further interference testing?

“We can't talk about all of the details,” the FCC's Fiske said in a telephone interview. “There is always room for editing and shaping.”

But testing sponsored by supporters of low-power broadcasting shows that such stations, with proper engineering, could easily coexist with larger, more powerful stations, says Pete tri Dish, an advocate for low-power radio who uses only his on-air moniker when discussing the issue.

As for the FCC proposal, Dish said in a telephone interview that he planned to reserve judgment until after the commission's vote.

“The proposal isn't finalized yet, so we're just speculating what might actually happen,” he said. “We can't tell yet if it's a reasonable proposal.”

Also complicating the issue is the proposed Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 1999, a bill offered by Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, last November, just two days after the FCC closed public comment on low-power radio.

If the FCC delays its scheduled Jan. 20 vote, it may decide to wait and see how Oxley's bill fares in Congress, which is set to reconvene on Jan. 24. The bill, if passed, would prohibit the commission “from establishing rules authorizing the operation of new, low power FM radio stations.”

Fiske says FCC officials don't comment on pending legislation except when testifying before of a congressional hearing.

In a statement, Fritts praised Oxley's bill as an effort “to stop the FCC's misguided initiative for low-power radio. NAB has provided unassailable evidence documenting that millions of listeners will be subjected to additional interference on the radio dial should the FCC proposal become reality.”

Phillip Taylor free-lances for the First Amendment Center from Newport News, Va.