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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

Adding Low-watt Stations to the FM Dial   

By Kevin McNulty
Kevin McNulty is a former AJR editorial assistant.       

Radio Mutiny died quietly.

The unlicensed radio station had been scattering an eclectic mix of music, poetry and opinion over the airwaves of West Philadelphia since November 1996, but it hadn't yet begun the day's broadcast when agents from the Federal Communications Commission seized its transmitter in June 1998.

"They just walked in, turned the transmitter on and said something like, 'You've been listening to a pirate radio station,' " says former disc jockey Pete triDish. "Then they turned the station off and took [the transmitter] away."

To the FCC, Radio Mutiny was a "pirate"--one of an unknown number of clandestine broadcasters that hijack frequencies and threaten to disrupt the signals of FCC-licensed stations or even, the agency says, air traffic communications. But for activists such as triDish (an on-air name), Radio Mutiny and other pirates are champions of free speech that have revived community radio.

The pirates also have helped force the FCC to propose licensing low-power FM stations for the first time since 1978. That was the year the FCC, promoting better use of the FM band, made 6,000 watts the lowest power at which most new stations could broadcast. The largest stations broadcast at 50,000 or 100,000 watts.

But citing radio's unprecedented ownership consolidation following enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, FCC Chairman William Kennard last year proposed opening up the airwaves through low-watt FM stations. "We need more access and more voices on the airwaves," Kennard said during an interview earlier this year on WMUC-FM, the University of Maryland's radio station.

Community radio activists are cautiously optimistic that the FCC will approve some sort of low-power radio after the public comment period ends in September, though agency spokesman David Fiske says "there is no timetable."

The proposal would squeeze new stations operating at 100 watts and at 1,000 watts onto the dial. The FCC also has sought comments about the merit of creating licenses for stations using 1 to 10 watts of power. Signals from a 10-watt station can reach about 2 miles; from a 100-watt station, about 4 miles; and from a 1,000-watt station, about 9 miles.

Since February, the FCC has been soliciting comments about such details as whether the stations should be noncommercial or if owners should be limited to one station per market.

Community radio activists have supported the plan as a way to fight the homogeneity they say has beset radio since the Telecommunications Act loosened ownership restrictions and concentrated ownership of commercial stations in the hands of 22 percent fewer companies. "Radio is moving toward monopoly," says the Low Power Radio Coalition's Jennifer Toomey, who ran an independent record label for eight years. "It's like they're over-farming...sucking every last curiosity nutrient out of our ears."

Minorities own just 2.9 percent of radio stations, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Kennard has promoted low-power FM as a way to increase diversity on the airwaves.

The National Association of Black Journalists, though it has not filed comments with the FCC, "is supportive of any effort to diversify the number of voices broadcasting over the radio," says Condace Pressley, the group's broadcast vice president and an assistant program manager at WSB Radio in Atlanta. "As for the specifics of this proposal, that's not our area of expertise."

But the National Association of Broadcasters says the plan is a bad idea. "We must acknowledge that consolidation--which has made us all rich--may have made it more difficult for minorities and other voices crying in the wilderness to get in the game," says William O'Shaughnessy, an NAB executive board member and president and editorial director of Whitney Radio, which owns WVOX-AM and WRTN-FM in New York. "The question is: Should the government be deciding the worth and merit of those voices crying in the wilderness? I don't see any answer to this dilemma."

The NAB says the FCC hasn't proven that new low-power stations could be added without causing interference to existing stations. "You walk a block in Rome, and you get 20 different signals. It's chaos," O'Shaughnessy says.

So few new stations could be added to most major markets under current interference standards that FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth has said this proposal "would hardly warrant the effort." New York and Los Angeles couldn't accept even one 1,000-watt or 100-watt station. Columbus, Ohio, has the most open market among large cities--it could accommodate two 1,000-watt stations and seven 100-watt stations. As part of this proposal, the FCC has sought comments about whether it could loosen interference standards for low-power stations.

Supporters insist low-watt stations are the answer to a number of problems, including commercial stations' emphasis on profits. "Their mission is to build the largest possible audience so they can charge the highest advertising dollar," says Michael Bracy, executive director of the Low Power Radio Coalition. "What's resulted is the virtual elimination of niche musical genres."

"Even 10 watts, in an urban market, can reach a neighborhood," triDish says. "That's what we're after: neighborhood radio."