CMJ New Music Monthly
April 1999/issue 68
Power To the People The FCC is proposing to give low-power community radio a place on the dial, if the National Association of Broadcasters doesn't jam the signal.On paper, 91.7 WSUM, the University of Madison's student radio station, seems to have a lot going for it.
Story: William Werde
Dave Black, the station's general manager, calls Madison "one of the most active campuses - as far as student activism - in the United States." The station also has the support of a student body with an interest in radio: A few years ago, a student referendum decreeing that student government should make radio a priority passed by a nine-to-one margin. It has a substantial budget for equipment and operation. It has strong roots in the community, working in local schools with radio projects. And it has a 2,500-square-foot office from which Black carries out his duties.
In fact, about the only thing WSUM lacks is a broadcast signal.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved WSUM's application for broadcast rights in 1996. But due to FCC engineering rules regarding interference, the station must transmit from a four square mile area in rural Montrose, 14 miles southwest of Madison. And in order for the signal to reach Madison, it would have to be broadcast from a 400-foot tower.
Montrose locals frowned on the perceived intrusion. "We got painted with the broad brush of urban sprawl," laments Black. "The same kind of brush as a nuclear waste dump, a power plant or a mine." WSUM's right to build its tower is currently tied up in circuit courts.
WSUM is just one potential beneficiary of a new set of rules being considered by the the FCC regarding low power FM (LPFM). In an official notice of proposed rulemaking announced January 28, the FCC proposed to license new 1,000-watt and 100-watt LPFM radio stations, and sought comment on also establishing a third "microradio" class at power levels from 1-10 watts. The FCC intends for the proposed stations to be less expensive to institute and run, with a streamlined application process. Currently, a station must be capable of a 6,000 watt broadcast to be licensed [on the commercial portion of the band]. A typical urban commercial station broadcasts at 50,000 watts.
"A 1,000-watt station would be fine," says Black. Under the newly proposed FCC guidelines, it is possible that WSUM would be able to construct a broadcast antenna atop a university building, precluding the need to build the controversial tower, and saving thousands of dollars in the process. According to LPFM advocate group the Low Power Radio Coalition, there are 140 other colleges and universities that operate carrier current, cable or daytime-only stations, at least in part because of lack of space available in the FM spectrum and the associated costs of broadcasting under current regulations.
LPFM is an issue that transcends college campuses. If the FCC proposal becomes the rule, many others could benefit, including local governments, neighborhood-based community groups, religious groups, minority groups and small businesses, which all might have an interest in speaking to their local and nearby communities. Some in the indie rock world are already pushing low power radio as a forum for less-mainstream music; if LPFM is ruled to be non-commercial, as is being considered, the stations would be less conscious of major label promotion dollars. The FCC and LPFM advocates claim that it is vital to the survival and growth of community radio, especially in the wake of a 1996 ruling that removed caps on the number of commercial stations one entity could own, which sparked a consolidation that's resulted in corporations owning as many as eight stations in a single market.
Not everyone is clamoring for the acceptance of low power radio, however. The commission - Chairman William Kennard and four commissioners - voted four-to-one to issue the notice for proposed rulemaking. But the dissenting vote and corresponding statement issued by Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth spoke to the concerns of many already involved in commercial radio.
Furchtgott-Roth was critical of the prospect of loosening protection standards - the rules that dictate distance between stations, both on the spectrum and from their literal transmitting sites - for LPFM radio.
"This is a severe incursion on the rights of current license holders," his statement read. He also cited concerns about what LPFM might do to the quality of current broadcasts, opining that the proposal "potentially impairs the ability of current licensees to serve their listeners, who must not be forgotten; while new people may be able to broadcast, others may lose their ability to receive and listen to existing stations due to interference."
Another potential drawback of LPFM radio - voiced particularly by the powerful lobbying group, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) - is that moving forward with LPFM now would provide a significant stumbling block for the NAB's hopes of realizing digital radio.
Lynn Cloudy, senior vice president of science and technology for the NAB, says that digital broadcasting is a priority for his organization. The NAB would like to see a simulcasting transition period, in which digital signals are broadcast in the adjacent channels of their analog counterparts until analog can be phased out. And there simply isn't enough room on the FM spectrum - certainly not in major markets - for existing broadcasters, their would-be digital feeds, and low power stations [the NAB claims].
Space on the FM dial is at the heart of this issue. In theory, LPFM would allow the FCC to identify niches in the spectrum, and fill them with perfect-fit stations that would broadcast just strong enough so as not to interfere with existing stations. But in many urban markets, spectrums are so clogged, there may be no space to divvy up. Furchtgott-Roth states in his dissent that there would be no 1,000- or 100-watt stations created in New York City, and the current Los Angeles spectrum would only allow for one 1,000-watt station and a handful of 100-watt ones. [Minneapolis, the FCC says, could see nine 100-watt stations.]
In its notice, the FCC acknowledges that there are many issues that need clarification. Which rules from commercial radio will apply to low-power stations? How, and to whom, will stations be awarded? Will they all be noncommercial? Is there to be a cap on the number of stations one entity can own? The FCC seeks comments from all interested parties. More information on offering your opinions (along with some very pro-LPFM viewpoints) can be found at http://www.fcc.gov/mmb/prd/lpfm.
Those on both sides of the issue say they are continuing to research their positions. Mike Bracy, executive director of the Low Power Radio Coalition [representing college and educational entities], says he hopes commercial radio is willing to work with him. "If the NAB's primary concern is the technology and the impact on the FM band, I hope we can get the NAB and the FCC working together to look at the engineering to figure out where it's going to work and where it may have some challenges," he says. "But we also hope the NAB would acknowledge all the potential benefits that low power FM could bring."
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