Beat Radio

Los Angeles Times
February 10, 1999


Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard has come up with an ingenious plan to, as he puts it, "create a whole new class of voices who can use the airwaves for their communities." Kennard proposes to hand out the agency's first low-power broadcasting licenses to several hundred new FM stations that will broadcast to areas no larger than 18 miles in diameter. While today's FM dial is dominated by the often predictable and numbing programming of Lite FMs and Power whatevers, Kennard's plan would promote variety.

Record collectors, for example, could play their rarities around the clock; urban ethnic communities could have their own talk radio outlets, and Native Americans could broadcast to listeners on reservations.

This is the kind of diversity that's been lacking in radio since Congress relaxed limits on station ownership in 1996, allowing a handful of networks to dominate the publicly owned airwaves.

Not surprisingly, the networks, represented by the National Assn. of Broadcasters, are not keen on Kennard's proposal. NAB President Eddie Fritts says the FCC is being irresponsible. "This proposal," he said, "will likely cause devastating interference to existing broadcasters and will challenge the FCC as guardian of the spectrum."

In fact, Congress created the FCC to safeguard the public interest, not to stand guard so non-network voices never get on the air. Kennard's proposal, moreover, protects against interference by requiring low-power stations to follow long-standing channel separation rules.

While the FCC has fast-tracked Kennard's proposal for a final vote by this summer, it has yet to figure out how to prevent big broadcasters from snapping up the new stations. A good start would be rules requiring that license owners be local residents and that low-power stations broadcast original programming rather than network programming.

Implementing Kennard's plan will be difficult, given the many applicants, from churches and town councils to currently illegal "pirate radio" operators, that probably will compete for the limited space on the crowded FM band in urban markets. Los Angeles, for example, has band space for only one 1,000-watt and six 100-watt stations.

The FCC [has received 13,000 inquiries about LPFM in the last year]. Obviously there are voices waiting to be heard.

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