Hundreds of low-power enthusiasts seek spot on dial

Friday, September 15, 2000

After years of fighting for the legitimacy of low-power radio, Pete
tri Dish feels he may finally hear a full-fledged, legal, low-wattage station
take to the air.

About seven months after approving a new class of radio stations, the
Federal Communications Commission began accepting its first wave of
applications from groups in 10 states, ranging from Alaska to Rhode Island to

So when new licenses begin to be granted in Louisiana, Dish and
members of the Prometheus Radio Project plan to have “barn-raising” event of
sorts Nov. 17-19 in Opelousas, La., capping a weekend workshop by putting a new
station on the air.

“We’ve kind of gambled a little bit on the planning of this
barn-raising,” said Dish, a Philadelphia carpenter and broadcaster who prefers
to use his on-air moniker when talking about radio. “We originally had it
planned for October, but we shoved it back to November because we’ve gotten
used to how the FCC does things.”

Even at this stage, low-power radio is hardly a done deal.

Congress continues to consider legislation that would force the FCC to
adhere to former interference standards. And then there is a lawsuit, filed by
the nation’s largest commercial and public broadcasters, that seeks to wipe
away the low-power stations almost entirely.

Meanwhile, competition for the licenses promises to be fierce.

The FCC received more than 750 applications for licenses in the first
application round from Alaska, California, Washington, D.C., Georgia, Indiana,
Louisiana, Maine, the Mariana Islands, Maryland, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and
Utah. The agency is now accepting applications from Connecticut, Illinois,
Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico,
Virginia and Wyoming.

The FCC carved out spaces on the broadcast spectrum for low-power
radio stations last January, in the hope that the new class of stations would
allow a greater diversity of voices and viewpoints to be transmitted over the
nation’s airwaves.

The approval created two new types of noncommercial, educational
licenses: one for stations with 50 to 100 watts and one for stations with under
10 watts.

To secure a low-power radio license, a group must be a governmental
agency or a private, nonprofit 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 based,
operates a campus or has three-fourths of its 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
of being warned by the FCC or had voluntarily agreed to stop those broadcasts
no later than Feb. 26, 1999.

But a month after the FCC vote, the National Association of
Broadcasters and the Corporation of Public Broadcasters asked the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to set aside the agency’s new rule.

In their petition, the broadcasters said the FCC’s decision is
“arbitrary, capricious and otherwise contrary to law.” They said further that
the new stations would cause significant interference to existing stations.

Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Nov. 29.

Meanwhile, the House has voted to put restrictions on the FCC,
preventing it from authorizing many new stations. The measure, now in the
Senate, would keep current interference standards in place, thus reducing but
not completely eliminating the number of new stations. The bill would allow the
FCC to conduct demonstrations in larger cities to see what happens when the
interference standards are relaxed.

“We don’t have a problem with (low-power FM) going forward,” said NAB
spokesman Dennis Wharton. “We do have a problem with increased interference for

Wharton said NAB’s tests show considerable interference with the
signals of existing stations when a low-power signal is introduced. He
questioned why current members of the FCC would relax long-standing
interference standards.

“If they were so eager to do this why would (previous FCC
commissioners) not have done this earlier?” Wharton asked. “This FCC thinks it
can defy the laws of physics, but it can’t.”

Groups like the International Association of Audio Information
Services, which provides audiotext services to the blind and the elderly, have
also protested the new licensure program, contending that the new stations will
zap their receivers.

David Fiske said the FCC’s practice remains to refrain granting
licensure when there would be a problem with interference. But he said FCC
engineers have found much more room on the dial thanks to improved

“We haven’t done any licensing yet,” Fiske said. “And there is no time
frame for issuing those licenses.”

But that doesn’t mean low-power broadcasters like Pete tri Dish will
rest on their laurels. Dish worries more about the active congressional bill
than the court case.

“Judges tend to think these things through a bit,” Dish said. “We’ve
always thought there were more risks in Congress because some of the members
there are likely to make pronouncements about technical issues they know
nothing about.”

Dish said his group’s main effort now is educating eager radio
enthusiasts about the new rules and giving them the tools and knowledge needed
to launch their own stations.

“We’re focusing on building up stations during this open window,” he
said. “And then we are going to continue to push for more and more change.”