Main Street Tattler [music/radio industry tipsheet]
September 17, 1999
FORUM: TO LPFM, OR NOT TO LPFM
[note: this is an opinion piece by, of all people, a record promoter (and former radio guy) in Minneapolis. Someone "in the biz" for a long time.
The references to "pirates" in relation to LPFM - and other references to potential LPFM setups - should have been in quotes, if he intended sarcasm, which he likely did.]
What's all this fuss about low power broadcasters (microbroadcasters, for short...LPFM, for shorter)?
Why exactly are so many broadcast organizations lead by well-meaning folks like the NAB, imploring anyone who'll listen to call the FCC, write their congressperson, commission a skywriter, begin a chain-letter...anything to stop this insane proposal by the FCC to allow pirates onto the radio band? It's the interference, they say. Once you let these whippersnappers loose on the dial, you just know what's gonna happen. Yup, right when it gets to the good part in "Stairway to Heaven"...or in the middle of hearing the latest pork belly price...or during a Howard Stern monologue which begins with the words "my penis"...right then and there, you guessed it: interference!
We're going to hear Hindu chanting or delivery of the Gospel by a non-Caucasian or an Insane Clown Posse track or some damn foreign language. All of this crap coming from a transmitter in the basement of some decrepit crack house fed to the antenna on top of the abandoned pigeon coop standing in the vacant yard next door.
And all this because the FCC wouldn't listen to the cries of proper radio broadcasters about this plague called LPFM.
But what if the FCC is right. What if there's no interference for properly operating - and monitored - LPFMs? Why on God's green radio dial, would anyone object to LPFM? And why - when it had a chance - did the NAB...and just about everybody else...ignore the fact that consolidation in the industry all but eliminated minority interests and drastically reduced minority programming?
No, we think there's something else here.
The interference issue appears to be a smoke screen and we're hearing about it because - frankly - it's the only real tangible issue opponents of LPFM can use as a scare tactic. But it appears that waving the flag of interference has all the strength of static cling and it won't change the collective minds of the FCC and Congress (if you're a member of a body which relies on public votes to continue in office, you can't help but want to approve an innovation which allows churches, schools, city governments, community groups, newly immigrated Americans, etc. to be heard in their communities).
Interference, my friend, is about all the opponents can muster as a battle cry.
But deep down, they possess a more pressing fear.
Sharing digital radio with the pirates.
While we're still a few years from DAB becoming reality in the U.S., here's the skinny. When it comes time to divvy up the digital frequencies, it appears that every radio station currently broadcasting will be allowed a place upon it. All AMFM stations...all Infinity stations...all Clear Channel stations...and all LPFMs. That sends a chill up the spine of anyone who's written a check for $10 million dollars to buy a stick worth $2 million eleven months ago, and it REALLY pisses people off who've spent a billion on their current properties (assuming, of course, they still own them when this all comes down. The smart ones will have taken their profits long ago. Their endgame was never long-term: Find a buyer, sell at a premium, clear out of Dodge).
But why should it? After all, it was these same companies which abbreviated staffs and live programming, bought in satellite utensils (the prophet system, etc), and changed the formats of stations brought into the fold into something perceived to be more mass appeal. It didn't matter if there had been a loyal audience to jazz, classical music, modern rock, etc. Economies of scale said "change it." Change it now, and change it fast. Make Wall Street smile.
Now the prospect of digital radio means a listener might have the option of listening to a rhythmic oldies station or an eclectic agro-rock station. Or a choice between a classic rock station and a local Hispanic talk show. Oh sure, those choices exist now. But on the same playing field? Let's compare the impact of 100,000 watts to 10.
DAB will do much to level the field, and presents the possibility of all stations being more equally available to the public. Smaller wattage has the potential to cover more territory in DAB. No multipath interference problems here, either; it just simply doesn't exist with digital. And sharing the bounty of digital makes those who overinvested in current radio frequencies cringe.
Who can argue with the potential of equality? Not the FCC. Not Congress. And certainly not the American public.
We know that currently vested radio ownership doesn't like the future they sense on the horizon. But they were wrong to assume that a license implied ownership of their precious frequencies. The current LPFM battle has reminded us all that radio belongs to the public. We always owned those channels. We just kind of forgot until the pirates woke us up.
But the prospect of LPFM means there will now be more radio to own. Reaching more people. Providing more diversity. Involving more people. And because of this, many of those new channels will be Arbitron-proof.
Oh, we think its a real problem, all right. But it's not being caused by LPFM.
The real interference we hear is coming from the embattled camp of a vocal minority who may be reacting to a movement caused, in part, because enough of their own shirked a promise "to serve in the public interest" in deference to financial gain represented by a plus sign in front of a stock price.
The interference we hear is of the worst magnitude: the bitter annoyance caused by the imprecise chatterings of fearmongers who seek to impede our future.
Bring on LPFM and its promise of diversity and relevance, the natural by-products which come with elevated numbers of licensees!
And you know what? More licensees could translate into increased membership for groups like, say, the NAB.
Hey Mr. Fritts - you wouldn't want to interfere with THAT future.
- Tom Kay
for Main Street
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