It's tempting to paint it as the Big Guys against the Little Guys, or just another case of The Man trying to keep them down. If only the fight over low-power FM radio were that simple.

Heading into last week's big radio show here, an annual convention put on by the National Association of Broadcasters, it seemed that this convention was going to be all about digital radio. Indeed, most of the vendors scurrying about the massive convention center seemed either directly or peripherally involved with the coming digital revolution: Three companies are racing to develop technology that, they say, will make AM sound like FM and FM sound like CDs.

Also, converting analog signals to digital will allow broadcasters to pack other information into the radio waves coming into your brand-new digital radio. For instance, a digital radio might display the title of the song playing, as well as the artist. Or it might show a picture of the singer.

But digital is for the future. Gee-whiz technology got pushed aside by an old-fashioned real estate fight, one that's happening right now. Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard is pushing low-power FM radio--tiny FM stations with broadcast ranges of a few blocks to a few miles--with the vigor of a crusader. Currently, illegal "pirate" broadcasters with low-power transmitters jump onto FM bands without approval from the FCC, which polices the airwaves. Kennard wants to legalize and regulate them. In Kennard's vision, low-power broadcasters will be organizations such as "churches, community groups and colleges. It can give voice to those ideas not always heard," he said at a breakfast here, "but which many yearn to hear."

On the other side of the argument are commercial broadcasters, keepers of an industry that generates more than $14 billion a year. Kennard's vision is their nightmare.

"I would be surprised if anyone in this room would give a ringing endorsement for low-power FM," said Ed Christian, president of Saga Communications--which owns 41 Midwest and New England radio stations--during a panel discussion in a packed ballroom. He was probably right.

David Field, president of Entercom--a chain of 42 stations, most of them in the Northwest--called the low-power proposal an "ill-conceived concept."

The radio execs' argument is twofold: One, more stations potentially means more competition for ad dollars, and that is not good for existing ones. Second, low-power stations will interfere with existing stations.

We throw out the first argument because we understand that an organization exists to protect itself. But that should not matter to the FCC: It is a regulatory agency whose mission does not include protecting broadcasters from competition.

The second argument holds more merit. With an acknowledgment to the growing broadcast capabilities of the Internet, radio stations live and die by the maintenance of their frequency--that number you see on the dial. Imagine that you have a shirt store. You sell shirts with success. Then, another shirt vendor starts selling shirts in the lobby of your store, taking away some of your business by occupying the space you paid for. You'd be outraged. That's how existing radio stations feel about the threat of low-power radio.

The debate, then, comes down to science and who has the more persuasive technical analyses. Most commercial FM stations broadcast with a power of 5,000 to 50,000 watts. The FCC is considering low-power stations of 10, 100 and 1,000 watts. At last week's breakfast, Kennard reported on an FCC study that used a variety of radios to test for interference. Currently, the frequency of a radio station is protected on both sides. For instance, WWDC's FM frequency is 101.1. That means that other broadcasters within DC101's broadcast range cannot occupy adjacent frequencies 100.9 or 101.3 on the dial. Kennard said the FCC's first round of tests are "very promising." Simply put, he believes low-power FM stations can be made to work without interfering with existing stations.

Radio execs are unconvinced and have submitted their own technical studies that say just the opposite. Fine. They have every right to try to protect their most important asset.

Several low-power advocates I've spoken to--including pirates--want low-power not just because they don't like the music being played on the radio (though many do). They see low-power FM as fulfilling a community service--one of radio's original charges. Their strongest argument is that they serve the poor in urban and rural areas. In Philadelphia, one pirate station broadcasts health and birth control information. In San Marcos, Tex., another airs community news and regional music that wouldn't be heard on commercial stations.

Radio execs at the NAB conference suggested the Internet as an alternative to giving a radio station to "every man, woman and child in our country," said William Stakelin, president of Regent Communications.

When I pointed out to the assembled panel members--as a reporter in the audience--that the very poor cannot afford a computer and a monthly Internet fee but certainly can afford a cheap radio, they scoffed.

"Probably the same person who can't afford a computer has a cheap radio, and the interference [from the low-power FM stations] will cause them to lose their favorite station," said Entercom's Field.

When I said that many of the low-power advocates want to broadcast information about health or community organization or immigration, Saga's Christian replied: "What are you going to do with the other 23 hours in a day?"

Randy Michaels, president of radio giant Clear Channel--which owns 476 U.S. stations--pleaded with the FCC to make the low-power licenses nontransferable, so "after they're done playing radio with their 10, 100 watts, they can't sell them."

More than one of the execs said low-power can't work because "you can't change physics."

Perhaps it was my tour of the Kennedy Space Center, while I was here in Florida, that made me skeptical of this statement. After all, NASA scientists repeatedly faced impossible obstacles. And surely establishing low-power FM has got to be easier than landing a man on the moon.

Don & Mike Dropped

The Don & Mike Show, WJFK's (106.7) afternoon-drive ratings king, was dropped by an Albuquerque station for anti-Hispanic remarks made on the Aug. 17 show, reports the Albuquerque Tribune. Don Geronimo and Mike O'Meara called the city hall of El Cenizo, a small West Texas town near the Mexican border, to talk to city officials about a recently passed ordinance that requires all city meetings to be conducted in Spanish.

When a woman answered at city hall, the hosts began their usual shtick--humor laced with insult.

"If your people cannot understand my language, they should get on their burros and go back to Mexico," one of the hosts told the woman, who turned out to be El Cenizo city commissioner Flora Barton.

The show was broadcast on KHTL-AM in Albuquerque, one of about 60 stations that carry "The Don & Mike Show" nationally. Hispanic advocates there denounced the remarks and demanded that Albuquerque-based Citadel Communications--which owns KHTL-AM--drop the show. It did, 10 days later. The show's hosts and producers are on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

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