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Beat Radio

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
April 29, 1999

Low-Powered Radio Stations Fighting To Be Heard

by Bill Virgin

Hey kids, I've got an idea . . . let's start a radio station in the attic.

A lot of people around the country have been doing just that. They've neglected just one little detail - getting a license from the Federal Communications Commission.

One of those stations is in Seattle. Free Seattle Radio, a 30-watt station broadcasting on Capitol Hill at 87.9 on the FM dial, received an FCC cease-and-desist order last month. The station has relocated and continues to operate while it protests the order. Interestingly, even as the FCC cracks down on unlicensed or pirate radio stations, it is also taking comments until June 1 on a proposal to grant licenses to low-powered stations. Its proposal covers three categories: 1,000 watts, with a radius of 8.8 miles, 100 watts and 3.5 miles and 1 to 10 watts and 1 to 2 miles.

The rule change is needed, say advocates, because access to radio is beyond the reach of many. "The current FM regulatory policy is the equivalent of the government licensing the printing of newspapers with circulation of 100,000 or more and denying licenses to papers with circulation of 10,000," wrote John Tirpak, an attorney representing Free Seattle Radio, in a letter to the FCC.

Established broadcasters are not happy with the idea. Their principal argument has to do with interference, the possibility that signals will wander and tromp on other stations. "These stations are not necessarily going to be engineered to the same quality," said Mark Allen, president of the Washington State Association of Broadcasters.

To make room for low-powered stations, Allen says, the FCC would have to eliminate certain interference protections that keep stations off nearby frequencies in a market. That concerns broadcasters who want to add digital radio by using the outer portion of their assigned frequencies.

But micro-radio advocates say the issue is really one of competition. Low-powered licenses are needed to provide diversity of news, opinion and music on the air, they say, and to break the increasingly concentrated hold on the airwaves that broadcasting conglomerates have. Some also argue that the FCC should give preference for the new licenses to non-commercial groups.

"We would like to demonopolize the situation," said Sheri Herndon with Community Powered Radio.

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