Legit low-power radio hits airwaves after 20-year hiatus

Thursday, August 16, 2001

Broadcast consultant Tony Gray distinctly remembers the debates surrounding the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a congressional measure designed in part to loosen restrictions on corporate ownership of radio and television stations.

With corporations free to gobble up more and more stations, what part of the radio dial would be left to small companies or to minority owners like himself, Gray wondered.

“It was clear, at least to me, that there wouldn’t be a lot of room,” said Gray, who owned a radio station in Mobile, Ala., for a few years around that time.

But Gray, whose Gray Communications boasts a client roster including subsidiaries of Viacom and Infinity, found himself on the same wavelength as William Kennard, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission — both believed that low-power radio could restore diverse voices to the airwaves.

“It was his idea to find a way to open doors again, to help everyone from small companies to religious organizations to churches to community-based groups have some voice on the radio spectrum,” Gray said in a telephone interview.

The FCC launched this new licensing plan last year in an effort to pepper the dial with low-powered stations owned by such groups.

Gray immediately jumped on the opportunity. His MNM Community Solutions, a nonprofit group based in Chicago, filed more than a dozen applications for low-power stations in various states to offer on-air instruction and encouragement to youth in urban areas.

The group’s first station, KCJM-LP, sparked to life on June 21 at 107.9 FM in Alexandria, La., with 100 watts of power, making it the first licensed low-power station to hit the air in more than 20 years.

“We were overjoyed,” Gray said. But he added that the station — designed to offer urban youth work opportunities in the broadcast industry — has much more work to do. Eventually, Gray wants his stations to serve as on-air classrooms to teach urban youth the intricacies of the broadcast industry.

At least four other low-power stations have hit the air since KCJM-LP, FCC officials said, with more to appear in the coming months. To date, the agency has issued 102 construction permits for various groups, government agencies and churches to start their own low-power stations.

The effort will restore low-power programming to radio dials across the country. The FCC dismantled a previous low-power program in 1978, following complaints from the National Association of Broadcasters and the Public Broadcasting Service.

Since then, as many as a thousand low-power, but unlicensed, stations popped up around the country, forcing the FCC to track their signals and close many of them down.

The FCC eventually began carving out spaces on the broadcast spectrum in the hope that a new class of stations would improve the diversity of voices on the airwaves. The new licenses would allow noncommercial stations to operate between 50 to 100 watts of power or under 10 watts of power.

Congress derailed that plan by restoring broadcast safeguards of spacing stations at least two radio channels apart on the dial, known as third adjacent channel protection. The Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, passed as a rider to an appropriations bill, also empowered Congress to determine safeguards by which low-power stations could get licenses.

The FCC declined to contest the new law and codified it into its rules and regulations last April, enabling the agency to begin issuing construction permits for stations that satisfied the new criteria. KCJM earned its permit May 8.

Gray and his MNM partners, Mark and Kimberley Minor of Columbus, Ohio, hoped to use KCJM and other low-power stations to expand the 10-year-old group’s community outreach programs for urban youth. By mixing instruction and life-lesson programming with popular music, they hope to encourage youth from ages 12 to 24 to get a good education through school, college and work experiences.

But they found that launching any radio station, even one with only 100 watts of power, wasn’t simple, Gray said.

As they began constructing the station, the KCJM crew learned that their studio location was considered a historic site. Although the building was under renovation, the landlord declined to let the station’s crew drill holes in the roof to access their transmitter.

They managed to get permission from the Radisson Bentley Hotel across the street to use its roof as a transmitter site, but then had to set up a temporary transmitter until they could secure access to phone lines that ran under the street.

The installation, expected to be a three-day $24,000 project, extended to more than a week and pushed the budget another $4,000.

Since it began transmitting, the station has been interspersing music with test audio material, but Gray says he hopes within two weeks to be offering planned programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

News of the first low-power station hardly concerned the National Association of Broadcasters. Spokesman Dennis Wharton said that as long as the station adheres to good engineering practices and maintains third-channel protections, his group won’t complain.

“We’ve never been opposed to the concept of low-power stations,” Wharton said in a telephone interview. “Our concerns have always been strictly related to interference.”

But he noted that the FCC had granted one construction permit to an operator in Philadelphia, offering him a frequency already in use by WXPN, the campus station for the University of Pennsylvania.

“Obviously, they are going to have to fix that one,” he said.

As for the low-power advocates who fought for years for a place on the dial, they remain cautiously optimistic.

Pete tri Dish, a Philadelphia carpenter and low-power enthusiast who prefers to use his on-air moniker when talking about radio, said he’s pleased that the first low-power station has taken to the airwaves. But he says he’s concerned about the 18 other applications MNM has made for other stations.

“If they really are doing mostly local programming, then I don’t have a problem with it,” Dish said in a telephone interview. “But if it turns out, as we expect several organizations that have turned in applications have done, they are really just a front for some large translator operation, that would be very upsetting.”

Cheryl Leanza of the Media Access Project said FCC rules forbid one company from securing more than one license during the first two years of the licensing program. She, too, is concerned about the multiple applications of MNM and other groups.

An FCC spokesman declined to comment on the question.

Gray said his group not only has several applications but also has secured a second construction permit for a station in Lafayette, La. He said any nonprofit group is free to apply, but it’s up to the FCC to decide which one would offer the best service for the area.

He noted that the state of Georgia applied for 23 construction permits to put traffic report stations in place around the state.

“Now, I may not think that’s a good use of the frequency, but they’ve already received a couple of permits,” he said. “It’s up to the FCC to determine that.”

Gray adds that low-power advocates have little to worry about his station’s offerings. KCJM will offer local youth hands-on experiences with the radio equipment, learning under the guidance of local professionals, such as engineers, program directors and disc jockeys.

Gray said the low-power licenses and his station’s mission also would target one of the biggest problems facing minorities in radio today — lack of minority ownership.

“There are a number of positions that you could fill working for the big corporations, but it has been increasingly difficult for minorities to get into ownership,” Gray said. “Through MNM, we would like to not only train young people in day-to-day operations but also to educate them, not only on the long-term goal working as employees but eventually having ownership of broadcast properties.”

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