April 14, 1999
Earwaves; From the Editor, Paul J. McLane
Everybody Take a Deep Breath
The Low-Power Radio Debate Is Shaping Up As 'Us Vs. The.' That's a Shame
RW has come under attack in some quarters for our qualified endorsement of a low-power radio system in the United States, as discussed on page 5 of the March 3 issue. In other camps, we were praised for our "courage" for taking this stance.
The powerful response on both sides demonstrates the volatility of the low-power debate. Expect a lot more hollering.
For the record, we wrote this:
"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 to bloom, the commission should pursue it."
There are big caveats in that paragraph. Can such a solution be found? The answer is by no means clear, and these questions must be answered.
But should the authority charged with regulating spectrum use even be allowed to ask whether that spectrum is being used at maximum efficiency? I think the answer is yes.
I'm not surprised that some broadcasters feel differently. In a letter we printed last issue, John David, NAB executive vice president for radio and a man I respect, went so far as to call our editorial a frontal attack on thousands of U.S. radio stations providing a free, local, communications medium.
I disagree with that assessment, for RW cares deeply about radio. But I'm more disappointed that NAB apparently decided earlier that any discussion of any low-power option would be an anathema. All low-power radio is bad, NAB seems to say, and must be met with all possible force.
NAB has created an "Action Plan" for its members. The package includes FCC filing guidelines, pre-written editorials to send to newspapers, and "Congressional talking points."
Among its points are these: Low-power radio will cause massive interference. It could harm a future DAB system. It will burden the FCC. It will not accomplish ownership diversity nor create stations where they are most desirable.
The vigor of its response reinforces the perception that the association is against any new stations of any kind anywhere. Unfortunately, that plays into the hands of those who wish to portray NAB as the association of the "haves" in the fight against the "have-nots." How much better to ask whether there isn't some room, somewhere, for a reasoned promise on the issue?
In a letter to industry journalists, an NAB spokesman also accused low-power advocates of "utopian rhetoric." I agree with the criticism, but the rhetoric is not limited to the low-power side. The arguments against have also relied on worst-case, doomsday outcomes.
One trade publication even created a phony obituary of FCC Chairman Bill Kennard with the headline, "The Man Who Killed Radio." That kind of pseudo-journalism feeds the frenzy, but does not advance understanding.
Comments to RW tend to support LPFM. Some are from unexpected sources.
For instance, a manager at an AM-FM combo wrote to support it. This broadcast facility also owns a low-power TV station. "I know the value to a community of LPTV and have a good feel for what LPFM will do for rural and small towns all across America," he wrote. "LPFM could serve their respective communities much like LPTV is capable of, only easier. Thanks for speaking your open mind."
I received one strongly negative response. This radio owner wrote angrily, "It's too bad there is not a Federal Publications Commission that would allow more small newspapers to publish stories for radio managers and engineers. Perhaps it would make you a better competitor."
Fortunately, our government does not license newspapers. But we don't need an FPC in order to "allow" more small newspapers to compete with RW. You could start one tomorrow. We could have 20 new competitors next week. Our publisher faces that possibility every day. That's how the open market works.
But radio is not an open market. And all arguments about low-power radio must start with that assumption.
This writer also accused RW of looking out for our equipment advertisers. I would never apologize for supporting our advertisers; nor should you as a broadcaster. And yet, suppliers are by no means unanimous on the issue, either. And the issue is too important to decide based on the needs of just one constituency.
In any case the debate will be interesting. We have an FCC chairman who is "way out in front on this issue," in the words of one NAB executive; Kennard has turned low-power into a cause celebré and has less room to negotiate a middle ground should he wish to do so.
We have one of the most effective lobbying organizations in America focused on LPFM and determined to squash it.
We have elected representatives on Capitol Hill who say they favor open competition, but who respect the political power of broadcasters and the public service they perform. Many of those politicians already are upset with what they view as an overly activist commission.
We have enthusiastic supporters of low-power. Some are schools and community groups that have longed for an opportunity for a slot on the dial; some are "reformed" pirates with no history of irresponsible behavior. Some are wildly idealistic; others clear-eyed. Do any of them have the political clout to carry their fight beyond a sympathetic FCC?
Expect the NAB to put forth powerful technical arguments and bring its formidable lobbying weight to bear. Can low-power advocates respond in kind?
The NAB response to this issue tells me that its leaders understand LPFM could happen. The idea has simple appeal in a way that people can understand, in an era of Net access and multiplicity of voices.
And once things move into the political arena, anything can happen.
On page 17 of this issue, we print a Dataworld map, showing the concentration of FM signals in the United States. The map was created as part of a research project into digital audio broadcasting, but demonstrates how complex any low-power solution will be.
Take a look, and ponder. Clearly, there is room in some parts of the country for more stations. Just as clearly, interference is a legitimate concern in areas where stations would be most in demand.
Advocates must be realistic. It is unlikely we would ever see new stations in New York or Boston. Schools and community groups in Idaho or Nevada might be able to put that big white space on the map to use. Will that suffice?
Make your feelings known to the commission and to us. RW is committed to providing space to other voices for this debate. Send your comments via email to email@example.com or to the address on page 78.
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