REPORT/Jim Cullen

FCC Proposes Low-Power
Community Radio

Community radio advocates scored a major victory on January 28 when the Federal Communications Commission, in a 4-1 vote, approved proposals to create thousands of new, licensed low-power radio stations from 1 watt to 1,000 watts that would help community groups, churches, students and ordinary people get on the air.

The proposals "could create a whole new class of voices using the airwaves ... opportunities for churches and community groups ... so many of whom feel that they are being frozen out of opportunities to become broadcasters," said FCC Chairman Bill Kennard in an Associated Press report.

The move comes three years after Congress allowed rapid consolidation in the radio industry by relaxing limits on the number of radio stations held by any one owner. While broadcasting corporations have built chains of as many as 465 stations owned by a single corporation (Chancellor Media Corp.), the FCC has 13,000 inquiries in the past year from city governments, schools, churches and others wanting to start low-power stations. Many are seeking to fill the local music and public affairs void as their corporate-owned local stations are increasingly filled with national music playlists and syndicated talk shows. [See "Radio Pirates Fight for Free Speech" 4/98 PP]

The FCC proposal faces stiff opposition from corporate broadcasting, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters, which complains that the low-powered stations would interfere with commercial radio stations. A key lawmaker has sided with the commercials to warn the FCC to shelve the plans. Other members of Congress can be expected to show deference to broadcast executives.

"I request that you take no further actions on this agenda,'' Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House Commerce telecommunications subcommittee, stated in a Feb. 11 letter to Kennard. "... I do not believe you should proceed with this matter'' without consulting with Congress.

Kennard replied that he has no intention of abandoning the proposals. "The radio airwaves are big enough for all of us,'' Kennard said. "There is enough room for the voices of churches, schools and neighborhood groups as well as established radio companies.''

Low-powered stations can be built for as little as $2,500 for a 1-watt station to $100,000 and up for a 1,000-watt station, FCC officials said. Depending on the height of the antenna and the terrain, a 1-watt station typically serves an area with a diameter of about two miles--and a 1,000-watt station an area with a diameter of up to 18 miles.

"This permits people who have felt abandoned by commercial broadcasting to use an inexpensive medium to create an audio soap box for discussion and debate," Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, which supports the new service, told AP.

However, Stephen Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley, who believes FCC regulation flies in the face of the First Amendment, still rejects the notion that the FCC should allocate the broadcast band. "As a movement we need to frame the arguments around the concept of the airwaves being a public trust and resource and clearly defined First Amendment Rights," said Dunifer, who operated a low-power station in Berkeley, Calif., for more than three years until it was shut down by federal court order.

Dunifer urged "pirate radio" advocates to continue the non-violent electronic civil disobedience of broadcasting without a license. "It is not time to decrease the pressure but it is time to keep increasing it. Let them consider the prospect of hundreds, thousands of new stations going on the air. Stations set-up and run by every sort of person imaginable from senior community centers to hard core inner city housing projects. ... I will not be content with a few crumbs from an ever diminishing slice of pie carved from an ever shrinking pastry. It is the whole damn pie shop and bakery, that is what we need to seize."

Among the comments the FCC is soliciting from the public are how the available frequencies should be awarded and whether the stations should be noncommercial, commercial or a mix. While existing broadcasters would not be permitted to own or operate low-power stations, the FCC asked for comment on whether new licensees should be allowed to operate as many as 10 stations nationally.

For information on how to comment, phone 1-888-225-5322 or 202-418-0200 or write the Federal Communications Commission, 445 12 Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20554; web site http://www.fcc.gov/; fax 202-418-0232.

For more information see the Americans for Radio Diversity web site at http://www.radiodiversity.com/

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