FCC tight-lipped on possible low-power radio licenses

Thursday, April 30, 1998

When the Federal Communications Commission began entertaining comments on low-power broadcasting licenses two months ago, it essentially opened the floodgates.

This week, FCC staff say they have been weeding through piles and piles of e-mail and letters—too numerous to place a count at this time. Most, they said, come from community groups and ethnic organizations hoping to open their own low-power radio station.

But FCC commissioners don't plan to offer their own thoughts yet.

“At the moment we're waiting for all of the comments to come on,” said Jane Mago, senior adviser for Commissioner Michael Powell. “Certainly people have made some good points, but there have also been some concerns raised that need to be addressed.”

Last February, the FCC began accepting comments on petition FCC RM-9242, a licensing scheme submitted by Rodger Skinner, a Florida-based broadcast consultant. Skinner's plan creates three classes of low-power FM stations, all community-owned and all under 100 watts of power. The deadline for comments was Monday.

FCC staff members said the comment-gathering is only a preliminary measure, not an indication of an impending vote on legitimizing low-power broadcasting. The commission hasn't decided if it will engage in a rule-making session yet.

Rick Chessen, senior legal advisor for Commissioner Gloria Tristani, said people following the process need to understand that “the proposals we put out for comment are not our proposals.”

Chessen said Tristani, too, won't discuss low-power radio licenses until after she studies the comments. He said the commissioner is concerned about possible interference created by allowing more radio stations on the dial.

Commissioners Susan Ness and Harold Furtchgott-Roth also had no comment, their spokeswomen said.

Perhaps the most vocal commissioner has been Chairman William Kennard who said he worries about the diversity of radio station ownership and wants to explore ways to open new outlets. While Kennard said he would never condone illegal broadcasting, he has said there could be room for licensed low-power, community-based radio stations.

Media scholar Jerry Landay of the University of Illinois said he hopes the FCC creates the licenses, noting that the commission ended licenses for stations broadcasting at less than 100 watts nearly 20 years ago.

“You either believe that the First Amendment is the core document of a vibrant democracy, or you believe that it is mere rhetorical cover for corporate oligarchy,” Landay said. “If the former is true, there must be room on 'the public air'—America's prime 'speaker's corner'—for public voices.”

But Landay said he isn't holding his breath. Plenty of opponents, most notably the National Association of Broadcasters, are posed to fight low-power licenses.

“I can anticipate the active resistance of several pro-industry FCC commissioners to progressive rule-making,” Landay said. “I would adore being surprised.”