NAB, microbroadcasters submit conflicting reports to FCC

Monday, August 9, 1999

As the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to gather comments on a proposed low-power licensing plan wound down last week, the nation’s largest broadcast lobbying association and a group representing microbroadcasters offered conflicting studies on radio interference.

The study from the National Association of Broadcasters claims that the creation of hundreds of low-power stations would severely degrade the broadcast spectrum. But a study released by the Committee on Democratic Communications and others supporting low-power FM stations or LPFM showed, at worst, minimal interference.

“Our study shows that opening the airwaves to the public with LPFM will cause far less interference than that cause by existing full-power stations,” said Alan Korn, an attorney with the Committee for Democratic Communications, which has represented several low-power broadcasters in court. “These results confirm that the only interference the NAB is really concerned with is interference with their monopoly over the radio dial.”

But opponents of low-power radio stations say their interference concerns are legitimate.

“I cannot believe the FCC will ignore what every respectable broadcast engineer knows instinctively, that when more stations are shoved onto a congested radio dial, the result will be more interference for the listener,” said Bruce Reese, president of Bonneville International, owner of several radio stations across the country. “With all due respect, how does extra static on the radio dial translate into ‘voices for the voiceless?’”

Last January, the FCC embarked on an effort that could create thousands of new, licensed radio stations ranging in power from 1 watt to 1,000 watts. Such a program would end a ban of more than 20 years on such licenses.

Although FCC Chairman William Kennard has generated considerable grass-roots support for a low-power licensing plan, the broadcasting industry and a number of key Republican members of Congress have strongly opposed opening the nation’s airwaves to additional radio stations.

Led by the NAB, the broadcast industry contends that adding hundreds of low-power stations will pollute the broadcast spectrum, and that the FCC’s main responsibility is to prevent such interference.

But many radio enthusiasts claim that the interference argument is an outdated concept with the sole purpose of keeping others off the airwaves. They decry what they say is a lack of diversified voices on the air.

FCC officials have fielded tens of thousands of comments since embarking on the low-power rule-making. The agency closed off comments on the proposal on Aug. 2, but will allow replies to the comments to be submitted through Sept. 1. A vote on low-power licenses has not been scheduled.

For its study, the consortium of low-power radio advocates hired the Broadcast Signal Lab, which exposed 10 common radio receivers to incrementally greater levels of potentially conflicting signals. Such an environment, the researchers said, simulate the conditions that would result from the presence of low-power radio stations.

Researchers said they found that the low-power signals created only minimal interference on some of the receivers. Such interference, they said, could be eliminated with low-cost filters provided to listeners by the radio stations.

The researchers say that the results suggest there is room to relax current FCC interference rules.

For its study, NAB contracted independent consulting engineers to use 28 common radios — which included car radios, personal radios, clock radios, portable radios and home stereos — in a “real world” performance test.

The NAB study found that the ability of receivers to reject interference varied greatly. The study suggested, too, that the performance standard of many radio receivers has actually deteriorated over the years.

“The laws of science and physics do not lie,” said NAB President Edward Fritts at a news conference last week to unveil his group’s report. “Low-power radio would result in a significant increase in interference for a large number of radio listeners.”

Interference aside, Fritts says the FCC should refrain from acting on the rule-making at least until after the radio industry makes its conversion to digital signals.

“The commission cannot tell us how the digital transmission signal will be affected by new low-power radio because a digital standard has not yet been adopted,” Fritts said. “They are putting the low-power cart before the digital horse. Where is the public interest in rushing to provide a new class of radio to serve a few listeners before knowing how it would affect future digital service to all listeners?”

Pete tri Dish, a former low-power radio jockey who uses his on-air moniker when discussing the issue, said that if any innovations should be delayed, it should be digital technology.

“The implementation of a practical LPFM system cannot be held hostage to technical flexibility and indeterminacy on the part of those who already control too much of radio,” Dish wrote in comments submitted to the FCC last month. “The issues of control and management of media, of localism in broadcasting, of the availability of public forums for all citizens are at the heart of our democratic system of governance.”