February 4, 1999
FCC's plan to let everyday people own a station ripples airwavesIf the Federal Communications Commission makes good on new rules it proposed last week, you can have your own little operation up and running for maybe as little as $1,000.
by Dean Johnson
Pick your format: JPJ (Just Pearl Jam), Armenian folk dancing, AMP (All Monty Python), Korean call-in, OOR (Only Otis Redding). You'd be limited only by the boundaries of your interests and imagination.
Of course, there's a catch.
Your signal would only reach a radius of 1 to 18 miles, tops - which is even less than many college radio stations.
The FCC has just recommended opening up as many as 4,000 low-power frequencies across the country, joining the already existing 10,000, mostly high-powered stations. The new signals would range from 1 to 1,000 watts, compared to the 50,000- and 100,000-watt stations that now dominate the airwaves.
The FCC's plan follows the radio industry's massive consolidation efforts during the '90s. Companies such as Chancellor and CBS, for example, now operate hundreds of stations each. That's resulted in, among other things, a massive drop in minority-owned FM signals, a reduction in programming diversity, and little opportunity for the little guy who wants to own and operate his own station.
"This is a grassroots response to a lot of people who feel shut out of broadcasting," said Tom Taylor, editor of the radio trade journal M Street Daily. "In the Boston market, for example, you have no hope right now of getting into the broadcast radio business.
"This stems from the same impulses that gave us pirate radio," he said. "People want to be on radio so badly they were willing to break the law to do it. I think these new proposals are very dynamic issues that will be around for a long, long time."
Steven Provizer was one of those "pirates" just a few months ago. He headed the Citizens' Media Corp. that operated Radio Free Allston - a low-power station that broadcast everything from town debates, rallies, and parades to original drama, ethnic music and pop. Its broadcast booth was in an Allston ice cream shop.
The station was forced off the air last year, in part because its illegal signal [allegedly] was interfering with some of the major Boston stations.
But Radio Free Allston is an almost perfect example of what the FCC is now proposing and Provizer said if the new rules become law, "We would go back into business as soon as possible.
"We would not only get Radio Free Allston up again," he said, "but also help other communties to do the same thing. That's why we incorporated. We had programs in a number of different languages. We covered events that no one else did. We always used the analogy that we were, in a sense, a public access station."
There are many details the FCC hasn't begun to even broach yet. First, the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the country's commercial radio community, opposes the idea.
"I don't really understand why the FCC is doing that," said Peter Smyth, an NAB member who also operates Greater Media's five Boston signals (WMJX-FM, WBOS-FM, WSJZ-FM, WROR-FM and WKLB-FM). "The last thing we want is any distortion of signals here. The dial is very cluttered as it is today."
Provizer has concerns, too: Who gets the stations? How many can a single company own and-or operate? He favors just one. He also wonders what the FCC could do to make sure they all aren't snapped up by religious broadcasters, a group he labeled as an "avaricious" breed.
Would the new stations be commercial ventures and allowed to take in advertising revenues?
"That's one of the many unanswered questions," said Taylor. "If they are, they won't be taking ads out with Ford dealers but the local car wash or the flower shop on the corner. It would be advertising at a very local neighborhood level, not the KISS-108 level."
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