Beat Radio

September 13, 2000

The Big War Over Tiny Radio

Even Nudists Are Involved In Low-Power FM Dispute

While hundreds of would-be broadcasters are seeking federal licenses to establish very small radio stations under the government's new "Low-Power FM" (LPFM) initiative, some of the nation's larger commercial radio stations are lobbying Congress to stop the "tiny radio" movement.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman William F. Kennard sums up the conflict like so:

"This is about the haves - the broadcast industry - trying to prevent the have-nots - small community and educational organizations - from having a little piece of the pie. Just a little piece of the air waves, which belong to all of the people."

But a spokesperson for the group representing commercial radio interests says the tiny radio movement will create, literally, too much static, that is, annoying interference for FM listeners.

The FCC proposed the LPFM movement in January, inviting applications for licenses for the LPFM stations, most of which operate on 100 watts or less and reach only a few thousand people each day.

The January 20 FCC decision to allow low-power broadcasting came after several years in which the Commission acted vigorously to shut down unlicensed, low-watt radio stations - more than a hundred of which had been broadcasting at various times during the past decade, mostly in larger American cities.

Under the new FCC plan, those stations which agreed to shut down by the end of 1999 [correction: by 2/26/99] will be permitted to apply for a new low-power FM license, and their former operations will not count against them when their applications are evaluated.

According to the feds, the response to the FCC ruling in favor of low-power radio has been swift and enthusiastic.

"We received 767 applications for LPFM stations during the first round of applications, which ended June 8," said the FCC's Kennard. "There's no doubt that low-power radio has the potential to improve communications in many American communities, and especially for those engaged in educational programs and local civic activities.

"Unfortunately, however, there are those who have been working non-stop to keep these first small stations from going on the air. Why? Because they know that once new voices can be heard, nothing can silence them."

The battle over LPFM stations, which typically broadcast their low-wattage signals over a radius of no more than three to five miles, began in earnest last January when the FCC announced that it would begin licensing low-power stations for non-profit organizations and educational institutions around the country.

So far, the federal agency has conducted two rounds of applications in 20 states (the second round ended Sept. 1), while reportedly receiving more than 1,000 licensing petitions from potential station-owners.

"The response to the FCC's LPFM initiative has been amazing," says broadcast engineering consultant Leo Ashcraft, the president of Mt. Vernon, Texas-based MBC Consulting. "I'd say that at least half of the 767 applicants in the first round were churches.

"But there are many other kinds of groups that want to operate stations, as well. There are political groups out there who are eager to be heard, along with civic organizations of various kinds.

"The diversity is incredible. I'm working as a consultant right now for a Florida nudist camp, which has applied for one of the new FCC licenses. The nudists think they have an important message for America, and they're determined to send it out over the airwaves."

A "Long, Hard Battle" In Congress

Although low-power radio advocates often describe the FCC initiative as "democratization of the airwaves," opponents of the new licensing arrangements insist that it will degrade the quality of commercial radio reception in many American markets.

"The issue is spectrum intensity [quality of signal], pure and simple," says National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) President Edward O. Fritts. "We remain convinced that in its rush to judgment, the FCC has done serious violence to interference protections that have provided FM listeners with high-quality radio service for decades."

The NAB last spring lobbied successfully for a House-passed bill that would in effect shut down the new low-power stations by preventing the FCC from assigning them space on the FM radio dial. A similar measure was recently introduced in the Senate. But a third bill - this one submitted by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain of Arizona - would allow the low-power stations to broadcast under strict supervision aimed at preventing them from interfering with commercial radio.

A co-sponsor of the House bill, Republican Mike Oxley of Ohio, has been vehement in his opposition to the new stations, declaring: "If the FCC proceeds at its current scale and pace, it's likely that the quality of radio signals will be damaged all across this country.

"There is no significant support in the House of Representatives for the implementation of the low-power FM rule adopted by the Commission on January 20."

Ashcraft, a veteran broadcast consultant who has helped dozens of budding LPFM stations to file for FCC licenses in recent months, says that the final outcome of the congressional struggle remains very much in doubt.

"It's been a long, hard battle," says the Texas radio engineer. "The NAB has been against low-power radio since day-one. They've lobbied hard, and they stand a good chance of winning this thing.

"In the end, I do think low-power radio will survive, but probably in a very limited form and with a limited number of stations."

Like Ashcraft, former Minneapolis micro-broadcaster Alan Freed says he's convinced that the LPFM movement "is about First Amendment freedoms and the right of ordinary citizens to be heard on the air.

"The fact that the FCC is now accepting licenses is an incredible step forward in the battle for freedom of the airwaves," says the 38-year-old Freed, who made national headlines four years ago when the FCC invaded his one-bedroom apartment and shut down his 20-watt "Beat Radio" station.

"I think it's amazing that the low-power broadcasters have won this victory at the FCC," adds the feisty Freed, who is fighting a government lawsuit in federal court in order to re-establish Beat Radio and who says he's also interested in the possibility of obtaining one of the new low-power licenses. "The LPFM movement is the anthill that has kept the elephant at bay. The folks at the NAB can't believe that we've had the audacity to stand up and oppose them.

"I think it's pretty clear that LPFM is here to stay, and that it will continue to exist regardless of whether or not congress passes anti-LPFM legislation. If it does pass and becomes law, it will be challenged and invalidated."

According to consultant Ashcraft, the typical low-power radio station operates on 50-100 watts, uses no more electricity in transmitting its signal than a large light bulb, and can operate 24 hours a day for no more than $5-$6 a month.

Yet these tiny broadcasting systems can cover as many as 10 square miles, says the consultant, which means that they can potentially reach millions of people in some urban settings.

"I know one broadcaster who has a 34-watt station in his living room," adds Ashcraft. "He calls it Jukebox Radio - and he reaches over a million potential listeners each day.

"If it's placed properly, a low-power station can really cover a lot of people."

Even The Nudists Are Excited

A Florida nudist camp operator who recently applied for one of the new FCC low-power licenses, D. J. Thayer, Ph.D., told FedBuzz that he was enthused and excited about the prospect of using radio to educate the public on the joys of nudism.

"Education is something radio can do well," Thayer told FedBuzz. "We're going to use it to communicate AANR [American Association for Nude Recreation] ideals, along with information about the immediate nudist community [in the Tampa area], which contains five nudist resorts and one planned nudist city.

"Live broadcasts and cut-ins from daily events will be interspersed with reports on the nudist resorts around the world.

"Part of the entertaining education will be music, and the nude dances will be broadcast live five-to-seven nights a week.

"Who said education could not be fun? All it needs is the proper exposure!"

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