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Wall Street Journal
January 17, 2000

FCC Set To Open Nation's Airwaves To 1,000 Low-Power FM Radio Stations

By Kathy Chen, Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission is set to open the nation's airwaves to as many as 1,000 new, low-power FM radio stations, in a move aimed at increasing the diversity of voices on the air.

The FCC is scheduled to vote Thursday on the proposal, which would allow schools, minority organizations and community groups to apply for licenses to operate "microradio" stations for noncommercial use.

The plan has come under intense criticism from commercial broadcasters, who fear the new stations will cause interference with the signals of existing stations and rob them of listeners. But regulators and other proponents of low-power radio -- who had mobilized a sweeping grass-roots movement that includes supporters ranging from the U.S. Catholic Conference to the rock group Indigo Girls to local governments -- say the new stations will help air more varied voices and music.

Since the 1996 Telecommunications Act eased ownership restrictions, the radio industry has experienced a major consolidation. Low-power radio supporters say this development has led to a marked decrease in local flavor. At the same time, the surging prices of radio stations are putting ownership out of the reach of all but the wealthiest companies.

"These stations will create real and tangible benefits to local communities," said Michael Bracy, executive director of the Low-Power Radio Coalition in Washington, a group that has pushed for the plan. "In terms of diversity, they will revolutionize FM radio."

Under the plan, the FCC would issue licenses to applicants based on a set of criteria, including how long they have served the community and the amount of local programming they plan to offer, an FCC official said. Commercial broadcasters wouldn't be eligible.

The new stations, which the FCC estimates could number "as many as 1,000 or perhaps even more," would operate at power levels of between 10 and 100 watts and have a reach of between a one-mile and 3½-mile radius. The FCC originally also considered 1,000-watt stations but abandoned that idea apparently due to interference concerns. The new stations would use parts of the dial that aren't occupied by existing full-power stations and would transmit to areas not served by existing stations.

Even so, commercial broadcasters and their lobbying group, the National Association of Broadcasters, have objected to the plan. "The FCC apparently thinks it can ignore the laws of physics," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said. "In a large number of cases, we think there will be a serious impact on existing stations."

He said the NAB would consider filing a lawsuit if the FCC pushes ahead with its plan. Rep. Michael Oxley, a Republican from Ohio, and Rep. Frank Pallone, a Democrat from New Jersey, have introduced legislation that would block the FCC from allowing the formation of low-power radio, but no action has been taken on the measure.

Some broadcasters also worry about competition. Although microradio would be noncommercial, the stations could still take listeners away from existing stations.

FCC officials say they have done extensive tests to ensure that low-power stations won't cause interference to commercial stations. Although the NAB last week asked the FCC to delay voting on the plan for another month -- after the FCC granted four previous requests for time extensions to consider the plan -- FCC Chairman William Kennard rejected the request.

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