On paper, low-power FM radio looks like a great idea, bursting with blue-sky promises in the areas of free speech, airwaves diversity, civil liberties, inclusion and community service. Last week the Federal Communications Commission decided to allow new low-power FM stations--from 1 to 100 watts--that could reach listeners anywhere from a few blocks up to about three miles away.
The FCC's hope is that these stations--which might be owned and run by just about anybody--will give radio voices to the disenfranchised.
That's on paper.
"On paper is not quite the same thing as the real world," says Anthony Diggs, chief engineer for Radio One's Washington stations--WKYS, WMMJ, WYCB-AM and WOL-AM. "Theoretically, a 100-watt station will travel three-something miles. But radio signals aren't that intelligent. At 3.5-whatever miles, they don't stop. They will travel considerably farther than that."
His question is this: After these new broadcasters hit the airwaves, will you still be able to listen to your favorite stations, or will the new ones overlap them like a loudmouth at a party who drowns out your conversation? This is the fear of commercial broadcasters such as WKYS and the thousands of other stations that futilely fought low-power FM over the past year.
Now that the idea is a reality, the issue of how to deal with it falls in the lap of engineers like Diggs. They are the nuts-and-bolts folks of radio stations, the techno-geeks who built their own radios as kids and take great pains to make their station's deejays and music sound as clear as possible, who live in a world of "watts" and "amps" and "gain."
Right now the term that worries Diggs the most is "interference."
A radio signal spreads out like a blanket from its station's antenna. At the edge of the blanket--the "fringe area"--things can get a little frayed. WKYS has 24,500 watts of power and broadcasts at 93.9 on the FM dial. Suppose a new, 100-watt station--call it WXYZ--is given the frequency 93.3. If you live near WKYS's antenna, in Northwest Washington, you should have no problem with interference. But suppose you live near the edge of WKYS's coverage, say in the hinterlands of Prince George's County. Right now, you can still pick up the station pretty well. But once WXYZ goes on the air at 93.3, and if that station's antenna is near your house, you may not be able to hear WKYS.
And as soon as a station's signal starts to fade and break up, listeners turn the dial. There goes the audience, the ratings and the advertising dollars. That's what worries Diggs and almost everyone in radio.
"Would you want to listen to a station that's going zzzzzztttttt?" he asks.
What can be done to minimize the possibility of interference from the new low-power stations, scheduled to hit the air late this year?
"The truth? Nothing, honey," he says. "The signal is the signal."
FCC Commissioner Michael Powell voted in favor of low-power stations Thursday, but with reservations. After the vote, he offered what may have been the most honest line to come from the yearlong battle:
"I must confess that I have no clear idea as to whether or not existing broadcasters will suffer intolerable interference," he wrote. Both sides have studied low-power FM to death, and both acknowledge: It is impossible to definitively know about interference until the stations hit the air.
Free, but No Takers
How come none of the presidential candidates wants to talk to Doug Stephan?
The syndicated radio host, based in Boston and heard on about 240 stations nationally, has offered free air time--free air time!--to each presidential candidate. That means all six Republicans, both Democrats and a couple of Reform Party candidates.
"A big, vacuous nothing," says Stephan, 53. It has puzzled the veteran talker, whose six-hour show appears live six days a week nationwide--most notably on several stations in New Hampshire and South Carolina, both of which have upcoming primaries, and in Iowa, which just caucused. His show was carried in the Washington area on WZHF (1390 AM) before the station switched to a Spanish-language format last spring.
Stephan's offer is uncommon and almost unbelievably generous: Two weeks ago, he sent e-mails to each candidate's camp, offering to run two 60-second commercials from each candidate every day. Also, he would give each candidate a five-minute interview every day. The commercials alone would amount to 20 minutes of unpaid ad spots daily; the interviews would add nearly another hour.
"We would make room for it," says Stephan, a self-described libertarian. His show is carried by three networks, one of which is the conservative Radio America network, which could explain the Democrats' reluctance. Republican Sen. John McCain is the "unofficial candidate" of the "Doug Stephan Show," largely because of McCain's stance on campaign finance reform.
"The whores that have taken over politics in this country are anathema, as far as I'm concerned," says Stephan, explaining where he got his free-air-time idea.
Before the recent primary push, McCain had been a frequent guest on Stephan's show. Now, the talk-show host is a puzzled, spurned lover.
"Just give me two 60-second commercials and I'll play them--what could be more simple than that?" Stephan asks, exasperated.
A spokeswoman for the Gore campaign said she hadn't seen Stephan's offer. I called the offices of McCain and Orrin Hatch, whose ad budget is limited. Both calls went unreturned.
Listen to This
Today, The Listener launches an occasional feature recommending an Internet radio site that you can listen to on your computer.
This week's selection, sent in by reader Stephanie Napier, is WPLT (96.3) from Detroit, owned by ABC/Disney. Its format is "alternative classic," and by way of explanation, the station's Web site reads: "If you believe, like we do, that the best music starts with The Ramones, The Clash and Patti Smith and goes all the way from Soft Cell to New Order to Nirvana, Pearl Jam and The Pumpkins, then Planet 96.3 is your radio station."
Dipping in last week, I heard R.E.M.'s "Stand," from 1988. Before that was Roxy Music's "Love Is the Drug" (1975). Before that was "You Oughta Know," by Alanis Morissette (1995). Oh, well. No station is perfect. Here's the Web site: www.planet963.com.
Former WMZQ general manager Charlie Ochs's illness was incorrectly described in a recent column. He had surgery in December to remove a benign epidermoid tumor.
You love it, you need it, you plan your week around it: Talk about radio with The Listener today at 1 p.m. by logging on to www. washingtonpost.com/liveonline.