March 2, 1999
Is commercial radio the dinosaur of the information age?
A proposal for new FM 'micro' stations faces opposition from Billy Tauzin and the National Association of Broadcasters.
By Scott Jordan
With the Internet, cable television, CD-Roms, MP-3 players and countless other technologies opening up new worlds of information and entertainment daily, the FM radio band's homogenized landscape can engender a depressing sense of deja vu. In today's age of corporate media mergers, companies are gobbling up radio stations, strictly formatting music playlists, trumpeting tried and tired slogans like "More Music, Less Talk" and "Today's Best Country," beaming the same jingles via satellite to stations across the country, and offering advertising discounts for multiple-station buys. In the New Orleans market alone, KKND, WYLD FM and AM, WQUE, WODT and WNOE are all owned by the same Clear Channel Communications.
All this makes it more likely that the same commercials will be repeated with numbing frequency of the latest hit single -- chosen, of course, by a focus group, not a disc jockey.
But if the Federal Communications Commission has its way, radio enthusiasts could have a whole new slew of listening options. On Jan. 28, the FCC issued a proposal to open up the FM band for "microradio," a new wave of low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations intended for independent broadcasters and community-service entities. The plan proposes licensing new 1,000-watt and 100-watt LPFM stations, allowing each one to reach an 18-mile radius.
Consider the possibilities of scanning a dial including microradio: local poets, authors and singer/songwriters on a 24-hour open-mic station; an all-inclusive foreign language venue serving New Orleans' multicultural community; and wide-open educational programming on any conceivable subject. Call it democracy on the airwaves.
The FCC currently is in a period of comment on the microradio proposals, and is soliciting responses by April 12. The FCC will reply by May 12, and will have three options: it may adopt a rule or rules (i.e., grant licenses), issue a notice of further proposed rulemaking, or deny issuing any new licenses.
Grass-roots organizations are giving the FCC considerable support, but it faces considerable opposition from two formidable opponents: Louisiana Congressman Billy Tauzin and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a considerable lobbying force.
The first salvo in the battle for expanded broadcasting opportunities was fired by FCC Chairman William Kennard. In a joint statement with FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani that read somewhat like a manifesto, Kennard presented the new world of micro-radio:
"As consolidation in the broadcast industry closes the doors of opportunity for new entrants, we must find ways to use the broadcast spectrum more efficiently so that we can bring more voices to the airwaves. ... [We] cannot deny opportunities to those who want to use the airwaves to speak to their communities simply because it might be inconvenient for those who already have these opportunities. In the past, the Commission has faced incumbents raising obstacles that might impede the development of new technology. We saw this with the development of cable television service, low power television, direct broadcast satellites, and the digital audio radio service. In each instance, the Commission was able to overcome these obstacles and bring these new technologies to the American people, and in every case, the American people have benefited from new services and competition while the incumbent industry has continued to prosper."
It took just over a week for Congressman Tauzin (who is chairman of the Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection Committee) to take action via a letter to Kennard. "I request that you take no further actions on this agenda," he wrote. "The policy, political, economic and budgetary ramifications of this undertaking are potentially staggering." Tauzin also has threatened legislative intervention if Congress is not consulted on the plan.
"There's been a 20-year prohibition on granting new licenses and to reverse that is a huge policy decision," explains Tauzin spokesman Ken Johnson, speaking by phone from Tauzin's Washington, D.C. office. "There are too many unanswered questions for the FCC to proceed now. Will these licenses be for commercial or non-commercial stations? For-profit or non-profit stations? Will they meet public service requirements? There are technical hurdles to be overcome as well. We've gotten reports that technical interference can run as much as 60 percent on the FM band, with stations bleeding into each other. There's transistor and tower [broadcasting] issues as well... . Would the country be better served with more voices? Probably. But we need to think this out carefully before we act on it."
In the rhetoric battle, both sides are bringing out the heavy artillery. The possible interference of LPFM signals with current operating stations is a crucial point of contention; the FCC maintains that minimum distance separations will make the issue moot, while Tauzin -- and the NAB -- claim the new stations could wreak havoc with existing signals.
Local broadcasting impresario Jerry Brock, who cofounded WWOZ radio in 1980 (and is currently the co-owner of local record store The Louisiana Music Factory), recognizes the concern, but doesn't see the threat to commercial stations with the proper safeguards in place. "Any existing station, regardless of its power, has to be concerned with interference," he says. "But as long as the laws are clear for people not to interfere, it allows more ability to people to have access for radio broadcasting."
Brock argues that microradio can have educational benefits, and he's joined by The Low Power Radio Coalition, a citizen's advocacy group that petitioned the FCC to pursue microradio opportunities. To that end, the organization has formed a college radio task force. The reaction has been uniformly positive. "Under the current rules, there is no way we could even consider pursuing a FM license for our station," says Debra Carpenter, dean of the School of Communications at St. Louis' Webster University. "If we were able to broadcast a low-power signal, we could really increase our station's visibility, benefiting students, alumni, faculty, and families and business located near our campus. We will take a hard look at low power FM."
With that kind of photo-op-ready sentiment taking root, Tauzin may have a public relations nightmare on his hands in the coming months. But if Tauzin is weighing in on the side of caution before action, the National Association of Broadcasters is moving quickly to throw up roadblocks. In its executive summary of comments on the proposal, the NAB wrote, "... the NAB believes that any petition requesting a rulemaking proceeding to establish a `microradio,' low power radio or event broadcasting service must be denied."
The NAB attacks the FCC's proposal in a 14-point response, but the NAB position that "current radio broadcast services serve virtually every need" rings particularly hollow. Who, one might ask, is serving the Cuban immigrant longing for the indigenous music of his homeland? What radio station currently runs 24-hour health programming related to its local community? Why does a young rock band have a one-in-a-million shot of getting radio airplay? The NAB can argue that existing community stations can achieve those kinds of goals, but the sad truth is that even public radio stations on the FM band operate under format and financial constraints. Any New Orleans listener who's heard WWOZ, WWNO or WGBH's regular fund drives knows that limited resources limit programming.
The NAB's monopoly on the FM band and its anti-microradio stance, and Tauzin's current position, hasn't fazed Kennard. "There is enough room for the voices of churches, schools and neighborhood groups as well as established radio companies," Kennard said in a statement. "I'm sure that Chairman Tauzin does not want to limit Americans' choices to whom or what they can hear on the radio. I hope that when he speaks with the church and community leaders who I have spoken with, he will see the benefits of low-power FM."
To comment on microradio to the FCC, visit the organization's Web site at fcc.gov before April 12. For further information on low power radio, the Web site www.lowpowerradio.org is providing regular updates on the issue.
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