Fight the Power

A new FCC proposal creates high hopes for local low-watt radio

Since the Federal Communications Commission's 1978 decision to stop licensing stations below 100 watts, small independent broadcasters have faced a tough choice: Use listener-free cable-radio (and, lately, the Web) or go pirate and risk a legal confrontation with the FCC. That situation may change in the wake of the Commission's January 28 proposal to open the commercial bandwidth to FM stations unable to broadcast at 6,000 watts. It's a groundbreaking policy shift for the FCC, which busts an average of two pirates a week, judging from reports on its Web site (www.fcc.gov). And it comes at a time when the climate of broadcast radio couldn't be more hostile to the democratic ideals touted by its founders.

Within weeks of the announcement, a new national group calling itself the Low Power Radio Coalition rounded up a diverse array of representatives hoping to start stations, from traffic cops to high school teachers. Two weeks ago the group met at the University of Maryland in College Park with volunteers from six college radio stations to discuss issues surrounding the announcement. "I never thought I'd be allied with the FCC on anything," says spokesperson Jenny Toomey, former singer-guitarist in the indie-pop band Tsunami and co-founder of the now-defunct Arlington, Virginia-based indie label Simple Machines.

Toomey has spent the past few weeks recruiting other indie-rock luminaries--Steve Albini of Shellac, Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, rock journalist and Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye--to speak out on the topic of corporate radio's exclusionist attitude toward independent music. She predicts the proposed measure would bring the cost of a starting a radio station to as low as $2,500 for, say, 40 watts--this compared with the tens of millions usually shelled out for high-powered stations. "This finally addresses the imbalance of rich and poor that makes radio safe-sounding and dull," Toomey says.

Predictably, the industry's response has been just as swift. Spokespersons for the National Association of Broadcasters warned of increased signal interference from small stations, a line echoed by U.S. Representative Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, who condemned the FCC as "an agency out of control." Speaking last month before an audience of top radio executives, he proposed that the commission be restructured and argued that current radio and television stations are adequate but underused. By way of illustration, he offered Barney, which he claimed airs 15 times a day in some public television markets.

"If that's true, it's because public television is underfunded," argues Jeremy Wilker, co-founder of the Twin Cities-based Americans for Radio Diversity. "And what is commercial radio doing but playing Jewel 15 times a day?" Wilker blames the deregulatory Telecommunications Act of 1996for the wave of station buyouts by conglomerates and Radioland's resultant blandness. "You can drive around the country, and the only differences in the radio stations from state to state are the call letters," he says. In the Twin Cities, three corporations own 16 radio stations.

Wilker and other boosters of microbroadcasting speculate that the NAB sees low-watt radio the way network television saw cable a decade ago. "It wasn't that individual cable stations were taking away that many viewers," he says. "But the overall effect was to make the networks less relevant. That's what could happen to the radio chains, eventually."

 

But why, then, has the FCC changed its tune? This is, after all, an agency that has vigorously enforced laws safeguarding big media from competition in a tacit alliance with radio chains going back to the '30s, when RCA began hiring high-level employees right out of the FCC's ranks. Even given that history, the Telecommunications Act made a mockery of the agency's nominal mandate to uphold the public interest. The commission's previous chairman, Reed Hundt, was a vocal critic of the Telecom Act, and he seems to have passed that agenda on to his protégé-successor, William Kennard, the first African American to head the FCC. Kennard has served his entire term in a post-Telecom era in which the number of minority-owned stations has plummeted. His recent nod to low-power radio may stem in part from his public commitment to addressing racial discrimination in the media.

"This proposal will help minority stations overall," says Pete Rhodes, co-owner of WRNB, a Minneapolis-based cable and Web radio station that specializes in black pop. "Right now, there are no Hmong stations, no Hispanic stations. They may get time on public radio, but with a low-power station, those kind of programs could go full-time." According to the FCC's Web site, the agency received 13,000 inquiries about licensing low-power stations last year. And hundreds of stations, like WRNB, operate exclusively over cable or the Internet. Many of these could afford the relatively small cost of broadcasting on a low-watt FM signal.

In fact, local activists estimate that between nine and 16 new stations could be added to the dial in the Twin Cities, where traffic is a trickle compared to the crowded radioways of New York and Los Angeles. Perhaps the best model of how these stations might work is Beat Radio, one of many low-power operations to air illegally in recent years. The Beat (97.7 FM) began broadcasting at 40 watts in July of 1996, sporting a dance-music format that immediately found favor with local clubgoers. In November of the same year, the FCC raided Beat Radio's offices (actually, an apartment) and confiscated its equipment, and the station has been in a federal court battle with the commission ever since.

"We're encouraged that they took this measure," says Beat owner Alan Freed of the FCC announcement. But he still expresses reservations, pointing out a proposed rule that would disqualify any unlicensed station the agency acted to silence from applying for new FCC services. In other words, it amounts to punishment for civil disobedience--vindicated civil disobedience at that. "We've been advocating this kind of reform for two-and-a-half years, and so have many other stations that the FCC has shut down," says Freed. "One of the reasons that the commission has changed its mind is that those stations took a stand. They're just now recognizing that there's room on the dial."

 

To read and comment on the FCC's proposal before a final decision is made, go towww.fcc.gov/mmb/prd/lpfm on the Web. The agency will be taking comments until April 12. Beat Radio will present "Beatification," an 18-and-over dance night featuring eight DJs, on Wednesday, March 3 at First Avenue; (612) 338-8388.

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