March 3, 1999
Bring On Low Power
Proposals to create a new batch of low-power FM stations have produced an immediate rash of broadcaster criticism aimed at the FCC, and specifically at Chairman Bill Kennard, who seems determined to push the idea through.
We don't agree with this knee-jerk reaction to LPFM. There is much to like in the idea.
The federal government long ago took upon itself the task of regulating who can use this part of the spectrum. As long as that remains true, it should also be the task of the FCC to allow the greatest number of users, and the greatest diversity of voices, consistent with technical quality.
Consider the "traffic cop" argument, one that broadcasters themselves bring up quickly whenever the FCC proposes to regulate them in some new way: "The FCC should simply be a traffic cop," this argument states, "keeping traffic moving safely and smoothly on the spectrum."
We agree. And a traffic cop is not supposed to prevent new traffic from coming onto the road.
Some broadcast supporters, including friends of the NAB on Capitol Hill, argue that new competition will damage the economic prospects of licenseholders. Indeed it could, if existing stations don't serve their audiences well. But it's not the job of Congress to protect the economic interests of a certain group of existing broadcasters. The spectrum belongs to the public, and we sometimes forget that.
Competition is healthy. If new stations can do the job better than existing ones, let 'em rip.
A new group of stations will benefit communities, schools, and other groups who can create voices of their own on the band. It will be good for radio employees, who can hope for more job opportunities, rather than fewer. It will be good for suppliers, who will have more customers to serve. A robust supplier marketplace benefits all radio buyers.
Most important, new stations will serve listeners better.
We in the radio industry have succeeded, if that is the correct word, in wringing a tremendous amount of profit out of a limited, government-protected slice of the spectrum. Ad sales are at record levels. But dissatisfaction with our product also is increasing. Formulaic programs with sound-alike liners make it easier for the listener to push radio into the background of their lives. New media hunger for our listeners. Unlicensed operators spring up, outside the realm of regulation or control of interference.
Legitimate questions exist about how low-power radio will affect interference protection and the future of digital radio. The FCC must address them. But if a technical solution can be found that allows low-power radio stations to bloom, the commission should pursue it.
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