Beat Radio

Boston Globe
February 20, 1999

Different voices on the radio

Radio gets to more people and places than any other medium of communication in the world. A proposal by the Federal Communications Commission could open the airwaves to the public-spirited and the quirky, those with something to say but not much money with which to say it. The FCC should not let the power of established broadcasters stifle this opportunity.

The commission, under the leadership of chairman William Kennard, is proposing to reinstitute low-power broadcasting - stations with 1,000 watts of power or less. Conventional FM stations broadcast with as much as 50,000 watts.

Low-powered stations were forced off the air 20 years ago as the FCC divvied up the spectrum for conventional broadcasters. Since that time the industry has consolidated to the point where a single company controls hundred of stations and listeners are treated to a steady diet of identical soft rock coast to coast.

The Allston section of Boston was fortunate to have a low-power station in its midst a few years ago. Steve Proviser, with barely $1,000 worth of equipment and 20 watts of power, was able to provide an unconventionalmix of news and music until the FCC shut him down in 1997.

The FCC proposal in its present form applies only to stations with between 100 and 1,000 watts, but it is also open to licensing microstations like Provizer's. Such flexibility is anathema to conventional broadcasters, and their views were echoed by Representative W.J. Tauzin, the Louisiana Republican who chairs the House communications subcommittee. Tauzin threatened congressional action to block the new stations if the FCC persists with its plan.

The broadcasters say they are worried about the possibility that the new signals would interfere with their own. Urban locations would pose difficulties, although Proviser believes that even the crowded dial in Boston could accommodate five additional stations. The FCC realizes that it will face technical challenges, but these will be less in rural or suburban locations, which also would benefit from new radio voices, especially if licenses were awarded to nonprofit newcomers and not the highest bidder from a media chain.

Commercial broadcasters have an unlikely friend in National Public Radio, which would not exist as a nonprofit nationwide network without the FCC decision decades ago to reserve the lower end of the FM band for noncommercial uses.

NPR's chief concern is that low-powered stations would disrupt its plan to offer digital signals - CD-quality sound that would fill the nooks and crannies of the FM band where low-powered stations would operate. Listeners would have to buy new radios to listen to digital broadcasts, an extra expense that may doom the technology, but even if digital broadcasting becomes commercially feasible, is crystalline clarity really worthwhile if the programming remains as bland as present offerings? A multitude of different voices is better, even if it creates a bit of static.

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