Today could be the birth date of a thousand new radio stations. Or the staticky eulogy for a thousand old ones.
The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote this morning on establishing a new kind of radio--low-power FM. More than two years ago, the FCC asked the public: Is there any interest out there in small radio stations that almost anybody could own and run?
The answer was a thunderous "yes!" as thousands of churches, governments, health organizations, schools, indie rockers and amateur deejays flooded the FCC with e-mails.
But radio stations already on the air said: Not so fast. These new stations will bleed onto our frequencies, which are our main sources of income. And the battle was on.
The FCC is proposing low-power FM stations that would fly under the stronger stations already on the dial. The smallest FM stations now allowed have at least 6,000 watts; their signals reach about five miles from their towers. The largest, 100,000 watts, can reach about 25 miles. Today, the FCC will consider licensing stations of 100 and one to 10 watts. A 100-watt station would have about a 3.5-mile radius. A one-watt station would reach as little as one mile from its tower. (AM was not considered because it is more prone to interference.)
Nationally, this could mean as many as 1,000 new 100-watt stations and even more smaller-wattage stations. The Washington area, the FCC estimates, could squeeze in four 100-watt stations on its crowded FM band.
Why low-power? FCC Chairman William Kennard has pushed the proposal to counter the radio industry's increasing consolidation in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which allows one radio chain to own lots of stations in the same city. Since 1996, the radio industry has lost nearly 1,000 owners, as mom-and-pop stations have been bought by chains.
Commercial broadcasters assert that consolidation had brought increased competition and diversity on the airwaves, but the FCC isn't buying it. Low-power is Kennard's plan to get more voices on the air and allow regular folks to own radio stations during an era in which a big FM station can cost $70 million.
Who would operate a low-power station? The FCC heard from local governments that would broadcast traffic information. From churches that would air services. From schools that would broadcast schedule changes. From community health organizations that would air AIDS-prevention information. From garage bands that can't get their CDs played on big rock stations.
The big broadcasters fear their signals will be disrupted by low-power stations. If that happens, it would be disastrous--if a station cannot ensure a clean signal to advertisers and listeners, it will lose both. The big broadcasters also feared that the new stations would siphon off advertising dollars, but cloaked that concern in technical arguments, knowing it would be a tough sell to ask the FCC to quash competition. But the FCC has defused that argument by saying low-power stations, at least initially, will not be allowed to sell advertising.
That leaves only the technical issues. The FCC tested 21 radios at its lab in Columbia to find out if low-power stations will disrupt signals. None of the radios, they say, cost more than $150.
"I told them I didn't want to use 'lab queens,' " meaning expensive radios, Kennard says. One radio, Kennard says, was fished out of a trash bin. Only two of the 21 radios showed signal interference from low-power frequencies, the FCC says. This convinced the agency that low-power was feasible.
But broadcasters are not convinced. Fighting the low-power proposal is the National Association of Broadcasters, the powerful lobby of commercial radio stations. Also in opposition are National Public Radio and the Consumer Electronics Association. The NAB's technical studies have shown exactly the opposite of the FCC's findings: that low-power stations will bleed onto existing frequencies. "You can't bend the laws of physics," says NAB President Edward Fritts. Aiding the NAB's argument is the FCC's failure to test clock radios and Walkman-like radios, which, because of their lower fidelity, would be most susceptible to low-power interference. The NAB estimates that up to 30 percent of listeners use such lo-fi devices.
Today, the five FCC commissioners--including Kennard--will decide which side has the most persuasive technical arguments.
Commissioners Susan Ness and Gloria Tristani favor the low-power proposal, while Harold Furchtgott-Roth opposes it. Commissioner Michael Powell's position is unclear. The proposal will pass with three yes votes.
The battle over low-power FM has been characterized on both sides as David vs. Goliath. But, grumbles NAB communications director Dennis Wharton, "who's David and who's Goliath?"
Indeed, the low-power advocates have assembled a mighty lobby, taking full advantage of today's technology--e-mail and Web sites--to spread the gospel. In the low-power camp are radio "pirates"--operators of illegal, unlicensed radio stations--and they know their guerrilla tactics. Low-power advocates have acquired NAB documents and posted them on Web sites. "Read the lies and propaganda from the National Association of Broadcasters," reads the Web site of Beat Radio, a Minnesota pirate station shut down by the FCC (it maintains an Internet presence). The low-power advocates have assembled some starpower as well, enlisting rockers Bonnie Raitt and Indigo Girls to their cause.
The NAB responded with battle tactics of its own, calling on its longtime relations with members of Congress. The NAB mailed letters to every member, telling them that low-power stations will disrupt existing service in their home districts. Further, the NAB assembled a low-power "Action Plan and Resource Kit," which instructed its members to file low-power comments with the FCC, to lobby their members of Congress and to submit editorial columns to their local newspapers (a sample was included).
Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio) became the big broadcasters' best friend and low-power advocates' whipping boy when he introduced legislation in November that would outlaw the establishment of low-power radio. Oxley says he sponsored the bill at the request of radio stations in his home district--not the NAB--and has disagreed with the NAB numerous times.
But low-power advocates look at the political donations Oxley received in 1997-98--$2,800 from media giant Viacom and $2,000 from the NAB--and paint him as a friend of Big Broadcasting. Oxley shrugs off the criticism, saying "that's the usual drill" in Washington and calls NAB President Fritts "a good friend."
Despite the phrasing of his bill, Oxley says it was not intended to prevent low-power FM from ever happening, but was a way to "throw light on the process and basically keep the FCC honest."
Despite the heavy lobbying effort, the NAB could not prevent today's vote. And low-power advocates consider that a huge victory.
"This demonstrates that, in the advocacy fight, the Internet and e-mail are forever changing lobbying," says Michael Bracy, a Washington lawyer who is the executive director of the Low Power Radio Coalition, the clearinghouse for low-power advocates. "This would have been a slam-dunk for the NAB five years ago."