The Gavin Report
April 23, 1999
Soon Above and Below 92
by Quincy McCoy
The FCC announced last winter that it might allow low-power radio stations - up to 1,000 watts, reaching an area up to 18 miles in diameter - to share the FM band. If - and it is still a big if - the proposed rules are approved, hundreds or even thousands of small, local, microradio stations would use parts of the dial that aren't occupied by existing commercial stations. FCC Chairman William Kennard says the purpose of these stations is to "facilitate a new class of voices" and serve the needs of local communities.
But low-powered radio faces a big political challenge from the National Association of Broadcasters, which feels these neighborhood stations could cause interference to existing signals and wreak havoc on the airwaves. The NAB also worries that low-powered stations would take up space on the frequency spectrum that they might eventually want to use for digital services. The NAB has mobilized its members to lobby local and national legislators, and has asked the FCC for a 3-month delay so broadcasters can conduct technical studies.
The FCC proposal has also sparked a grassroots campaign made up of a diverse contingent of people from across the country, each with different agendas, all of whom want to start their own radio stations. Groups like the Low-Power Radio Coalition in Washington, D.C., and the Microradio Empowerment Coalition in San Francisco are swapping strategies to keep the pressure on the FCC to make these frequencies available.
Since the 1996 Telecommunications Act eased ownership restrictions, many contend that consolidation in the radio industry has led to a marked decrease of local flavor and less diversity of voices. This, along with the loss of the minority tax certificate incentives and the tremendous costs of full-power radio stations, makes it nearly impossible for the little guy to get back on the air. Big broadcasters, who are already beginning to face competition from Internet radio, and must soon battle digital satellite radio, see low-powered stations as an intrusion on their exclusive territory. Especially if the stations will now be sprinkled all across the dial, no longer regulated to below frequency 92. A spokesman for the NAB said that this proposal, "is the most serious issue to face the radio industry in 30 years."
Instead of seeing low-powered stations as a threat, however, maybe big broadcasters should treat these small outlets as laboratory stations to experiment with new formats. Radio has had its head buried so deep into research in recent years, it's stopped developing our business and allowing new ideas to evolve. Since consolidation, small- and medium-market laboratory stations are a thing of the past, but these new microradio stations, with their intent to produce new and diverse programming, surely will hit on some hot new formats, and interesting personalities are sure to be discovered.
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