Microbroadcasters cast hopeful but wary eye at FCC proposal

Friday, January 29, 1999

While the Federal Communications Commission's decision yesterday to consider the creation of a “microradio” class of broadcasting surprised some, the vote caught few low-power broadcasters off guard.

Take Pete tri Dish, a 28-year-old broadcaster who refuses to use anything but his on-air moniker when talking about radio. Not only was he prepared for the vote, he took the week off to travel from Philadelphia where he works as a carpenter to attend the meeting at FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Although admitting they are pleased that the FCC took a step toward creating a class of low-power licenses, Dish and others in the micropower movement admit they are skeptical.

“The real question remains unanswered: Is it going to be a useful service or is it going to be business as usual?” Dish asked.

With the 4-1 vote yesterday, the FCC embarked on an effort that could create thousands of new, licensed low-power radio stations which could range from 1 watt to 1,000 watts. Such a program would end a more than 20-year ban on such licenses.

All the commissioners say the real questions about such a program concern the ability of the broadcast spectrum to handle an influx of new stations and whether such stations would threaten developing radio technology.

Although she voted to consider low-power radio licenses, Commissioner Susan Ness says research must show that such problems don't exist before the agency adopts a new service.

“We would then brighten, not tarnish, the commission's performance in maintaining the integrity of the radio spectrum while expanding the diversity of voices,” Ness said in a statement sent to the First Amendment Center.

Opponents to low-power licenses say the answers are already quite clear.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which boasts a membership of more than 10,000 licensed broadcasters across the country, claims the infusion of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new broadcast stations to a limited spectrum will create chaos.

The NAB, too, says the focus on new licenses hinders new technology, specifically the “In Band On Channel” system or IBOC, a development that would allow the simultaneous broadcast of analog and digital signals until all radio stations can convert to just digital broadcasts.

“This proposal to add as many as 4,000 low-power stations to an already congested radio band threatens the transition to IBOC digital radio, will likely cause devastating interference to existing broadcasters, and will challenge the FCC as guardian of the spectrum,” said NAB President Edward Fritts in an e-mailed statement.

At yesterday's meeting, the NAB found support in Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, who agreed that the creation of a low-power license plan would cause undue interference. Furchtgott-Roth cast the only vote against considering low-power licensing.

But other commissioners say low-power broadcasting may offer radio its best chance to snare new and more diverse voices.

FCC Chairman William Kennard, who spoke extensively last year in support of opening the airwaves, said the licenses “could create a whole new class of voices … so many of whom feel that they are being frozen out of opportunities to become broadcasters.”

But the NAB's Fritts dismisses claims that diversity doesn't exist on the radio dial. He says that in the 20 years since the dismantling of low-power licenses about 3,500 stations have been added, bringing the total number of legally operating stations to more than 12,500.

“These stations provide a rich array of local news, sports, entertainment and public service programming,” Fritts said. “In its quest for 'more diversity,' we fervently hope the FCC does not damage today's free, locally based system of radio that is the envy of the world.”

Low-power advocates disagree with Fritts' assessment of the state of diversity on the nation's airwaves.

They say diversity has decreased especially since the passage of a 1996 federal law that relaxed limits on the number of radio stations a company could own in a single market. They contend that as corporations picked up new stations, they consolidated news, music and other programming and, thus, limited the variety of available programming. They, too, say that the law has cut into the number of locally owned and operated radio stations.

Broadcasters like Dish, formerly of the unlicensed station Radio Mutiny, argue that if diversity truly exists on the dial, the FCC wouldn't have received more than 13,000 inquiries about low-power broadcasting last year.

Agency officials said most of those inquiries came from city governments, schools, churches and nonprofit groups wanting to start their own low-power stations.

Although some tout the significance of yesterday's FCC action, the vote is merely the first step in a long, sometimes tedious process, that the agency has used many times, says Robert Corn-Revere, a former FCC counsel. The FCC, he said, authorizes new services on a fairly regular basis.

Corn-Revere says, too, that once the FCC hammers out all of the details of low-power licenses, the new stations would probably be regulated in much the same way that other stations are.

While many microbroadcasters don't fear regulation, they worry that the FCC will settle on a proposal that caters to commercial interests and still leaves them without a voice.

Low-power advocates must monitor progress closely “or else commercial interests will overwhelm the diversity the FCC claims [it is] after,” said Jerry Landay, an associate professor at the University of Illinois. “People who care about the issue need to let the FCC know the importance of noncommercial diversity. Just sitting back and letting them do it may bring something we don't like.”

Landay says he expects to see the NAB lobby aggressively until it defeats low-power licensing or gets a proposal that is essentially “a gift of more members.”

“That's where I cast the jaundiced and very cynical eye,” Landay said. “What is to prevent the same amalgamation of stations we have seen in the past, with corporations picking up stations like they were Cracker Jack?”

Dish says he hopes the FCC won't leave small community groups out in the cold by granting most of the new licenses to schools, religious organizations and large nonprofit groups.

“They have to understand that this was won through civil disobedience,” said Dish, who last year led a protest of low-power broadcasters that ended with a rally in front of FCC headquarters. “The FCC didn't just come up with this. Citizens who were completely frustrated with the bureaucratic process took this into their own hands and created a situation where the FCC had to address it.”

“The real issue here is that it's the FCC's job to regulate the airwaves in the public interest,” Dish said. “The only reason they can do that constitutionally is you need someone to coordinate frequency so there isn't chaos. But it's very important to do that in ways that are least offensive to free speech as possible.”