Microbroadcasters hold out hope FCC will consider low-power radio licenses

Wednesday, November 11, 1998

Barely a month after low-power broadcasters in Washington, D.C., fired up a small transmitter in front of its office, the Federal Communications Commission may be considering a change in the way it licenses radio stations.

Low-power advocates speculate that the FCC will embark on an effort to draft new low-power licensing rules during its December meeting or at least draft an official notice of public inquiry.

But an agency spokesman said such talk is premature.

“I think that's something Chairman (William) Kennard has been pressing,” FCC spokesman David Fiske said. “But I haven't seen any drafts yet. We haven't even come out with an agenda for our November meeting.”

Low-power broadcasters contend that they have a First Amendment right to operate their radio stations, particularly when larger stations don't offer diverse voices. Several dozen low-power advocates last month marched in Washington, D.C., and broadcast in front of the offices of the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters.

On the other hand, the FCC and NAB, which represents most licensed broadcasters in this country, maintain that the right to broadcast is a limited one because of the scarcity of broadcast frequencies. Without licenses, they contend, there would be chaos on the airwaves.

But the current FCC licensing scheme, some say, has left the airwaves open only to those who can pay a premium. While the FCC once offered low-power licenses, the agency dropped them in 1978 under pressure from the NAB and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which claimed the low-power stations caused interference with their members.

Current FCC regulations allow for some unlicensed stations, but the agency doesn't even grant licenses until they have at least 100 watts of power.

Although the FCC vigilantly pursues those broadcasters operating without a license, Kennard has said on several occasions this year that he wanted the agency to consider licenses for smaller stations.

“We are seriously evaluating proposals for a new microradio service,” Kennard said during an NAB conference last month. “I believe that we have an obligation to explore ways to open the doors of opportunity to use the airwaves, particularly as consolidation closes those doors for new entrants.”

The FCC this summer accepted public comments on low-power licenses. Since then the agency's mass media bureau has been studying the comments and proposals but has yet to draft recommendations, Fiske said.

But some low-power broadcasters say the FCC is considering only one-watt licenses, which would be woefully inadequate to run a strong community radio station.

“I think everyone knows that would be a token gesture and would probably be even more infuriating than not offering a license,” said Peter Franck, an attorney for the Commission on Democratic Communications, a group lobbying for low-power licenses.

In the meantime, the agency has maintained its high-profile effort to shut down unlicensed stations. Last month, agents closed KBLT/104.7 FM, a low-power station illegally broadcasting in Los Angeles.

Also, the Michigan Legislature is considering resolutions in both the Senate and the House supporting low-power radio licenses. The resolutions, in part, would urge the FCC to amend its licensing rules to allow for small, locally owned FM stations.