November 15, 2004
Sometimes, in our lust for the latest gadgets, we ignore proven tools that are already at hand. So it is with media. We’re enthralled with the universe of Internet applications and the burgeoning of cable and satellite TV. But what about radio?
It’s the truly ubiquitous medium. It’s the workmate of every wage-earning stiff who isn’t lashed to a desktop and a desk. It rides alongside every driver who isn’t rear-ending the car ahead while making a cell call. The U.S. home averages nine radios.
But as anything but an airborne Muzak service (and soapbox for syndicated blab masters), radio is a disaster. Since the 1996 deregulation law unleashed an unparalleled wave of monopolization, the radio service many of us grew up with has vanished. Local newscasts are a memory. Homegrown musicians might as well play on the sidewalk for quarters. Emergency authorities sometimes can’t get bulletins aired in small towns, whose stations are mere relays for robotic music-feeds from half a continent away.
Even without sweeping new regulations, however, the technology exists to change that, at least a little. Meet low-power FM radio. Largely unnoticed — this isn’t the kind of issue broadcast barons have reason to play up — a quiet struggle has been under way since 1998 to restore some of the public value, and local control, that radio once had.
Low-power FM radio (LPFM) refers to tiny, nonprofit radio stations — 100 watts or less, about the energy of a light bulb, compared with commercial behemoths 500 times bigger. They have limited reach, perhaps three and a half miles. But while a commercial station averages more than $2.5 million to buy, an LPFM can be operational for as little as $6,000.
Though puny, LPFM has enormous potential: To beam to underserved localities, to provide a forum for voices that existing broadcasters ignore, to re-dedicate a sliver of the spectrum to community service, to validate local realities and plans, to remind us all that the cornerstone of U.S. broadcasting has for 75 years been something called localism, the geographic counterpart to the federalism that is praised as rapturously as it is ignored.
The fight over LPFM began in the aftermath of the 1996 telecommunications act, which triggered a predatory rollup of independent stations. Alarmed by the disappearance of locally owned broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission — under its pre-Michael Powell leadership — began soliciting applications, and by May 2000 received more than 3,400, from community group, churches, non-commercial entities of all kinds.
That’s when the industry woke up, and its supremely powerful lobby, the National Association of Broadcasters, swung into action — with the assistance of National Public Radio, normally the petting zoo of progressive causes. The broadcasters got Congress in December 2000 to order a study into their claim that LPFM would interfere with full-power signals. Meantime, Congress required hugely wasteful separation requirements: If a community had a station at 101.1 megacycles, it couldn’t get an LPFM at 99.9 or 101.3. That’s one degree of separation. Nor at 99.7 and 101.5, or even at 99.5 and 101.7. The number of potential stations plummeted.
Two years and $2 million later, the technical study concluded, as expected, that the interference argument was bogus.
LPFM has meanwhile drawn widening grassroots support at public hearings in South Carolina, Texas and California, where representatives of community groups, musicians, social service agencies and the like turned out by the hundreds.
But Congress needs to rescind its 2000 law so the FCC can clear the backlogged applications.
Last June, senators John McCain and Patrick Leahy introduced a bill to scrap the technically ridiculous separation rules, and authorize as many as 1,000 new stations, roughly five times the number approved so far.
Good luck. The bill, according to the two Capitol Hill staffers I spoke to, is an orphan. The NAB, despite the study’s all-clear, continues to deplore what it calls “shoe-horning more stations onto an already overcrowded radio dial.” And no lawmaker likes to buck the mighty broadcasters when they rise to their full protectionist fury.
In introducing his bill, McCain spoke of a tiny Spanish-language station in Fresno, Calif., a music station in New Orleans that showcases local artists, and a station in Rockland, Maine, that’s a local alternative to the outlets of the 1,300-station Clear Channel giant. Too bad for others like them. The media millennium will have to wait a bit longer.