Minneapolis Star Tribune
January 22, 2000

Radio: More diversity on FM dial is good news - isn't it?

Noel Holston

The Federal Communications Commission's vote Thursday to open the FM radio dial to 1,000 or more new low-power stations is supposed to be a great victory for "the people," but finding people who were dismayed or anxious about it was easier than finding people who were elated.

Certainly the commercial radio interests aren't happy. Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, accused the FCC of ruining FM radio for everyone. "Every legitimate scientific study validates that additional interference will result" from low-power FM, he said in a statement Thursday. "This FCC has chosen advancement of social engineering over spectrum integrity. It's a sad day for radio listeners."

Fritts' organization did everything in its power to stop the low-power expansion, and it isn't giving up the fight. But he conveniently ignores the fact that the FCC might not have felt the need to "social engineer" some diversity if the conglomerated commercial broadcasters provided more time for minority or public-service programming. Moreover, the licenses that the FCC plans to allot to community groups will be strictly noncommercial, so the 1-, 10-, 50-and 100-watt stations will not compete with the big guys for advertising dollars.

What was surprising was the lack of whole-hearted support for the FCC's ruling among existing noncommercial broadcasters.

At the University of Minnesota's Radio K (770 AM), general manager Andy Marlowe said the FCC is trying to correct diversity problems it aggravated by allowing broadcast conglomerates to own more stations in individual markets. [Beat note: this is inaccurate; Congress did that, not the FCC.] He predicted that the FM expansion will result in a slew of "fifth class" stations that are "woefully underpowered."

At least Radio K doesn't have to worry about its signal getting fuzzed up. It's an AM. Fresh Air Radio, KFAI, is another story. Not only is it FM (90.3 in Minneapolis, 106.7 in St. Paul), but it's not much more powerful than the new outlets will be.

General manager David McKay said he and KFAI's board had "mixed feelings" about the low-power expansion. They're concerned about signal interference, especially in St. Paul. "106.7 is not a regular radio station," he said. "It's a translator [a signal relayer], and it's not protected by the same rules. Someone could file for a frequency at or very close to that signal and have a dramatic impact. And we couldn't do a thing about it."

On the other hand, diversity is a founding principle of KFAI. Its schedule is a smorgasbord of programs for and by members of minority communities and fans of musical genres poorly represented on mainstream radio. So KFAI would feel an obligation to help new low-power licensees, or perhaps form partnerships with them, McKay said.

Who will apply?

No one knows how many low-power FM frequencies will be assigned to the Twin Cities area. Who will apply is anybody's guess as well. One certain applicant is Alan Freed. His unauthorized low-power station, Beat Radio, was shut down by the FCC in 1996.

Freed doesn't know whether his constituency -- fans of techno and other contemporary dance music -- make up the sort of "community group" that the FCC wants low-power FM to serve. But he's more concerned about being denied a license because he engaged in what he considers an act of civil disobedience but that the FCC labeled "piracy."

"That would be like saying, 'Rosa Parks, you caused a lot of trouble in Montgomery. We're gonna open the buses up to everybody, but you can't ride,'" Freed said.

For more information about the FCC's ruling and the application process, phone 1-888-CALLFCC, or check out its low-power FM Web site:


Copyright 2000 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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