(l o w) Power to the People


Radio sucks. That’s the inescapable conclusion of all too many people in cities and towns of all sizes these days: folks fed up with stale music, predictable banter, or the insufferable smugness of National Public Radio.

Since the Communications Act of 1996, it’s gotten even worse, as huge conglomerates buy each other out, creating chains of hundreds of co-owned stations.

With the trading frenzy since 1996, station values have soared, making station ownership in cities of any size unaffordable for all but the corporate few. The homogenized result deprives audiences of local voices, local perspectives, and any meaningful variety in the choices available on the radio dial. Some stations, in fact, employ satellite technology that allows remote-control networks and DJs to pretend to be local in hundreds of cities at once. Meanwhile, so-called noncommercial stations have scrambled to compete by adding thinly disguised commercials (“underwriting”) and, as with Pacifica Radio, drumming out voices of political or cultural dissent.

Amidst this deadening of the airwaves, some hardy souls have fought back. Because the technology is simple and relatively cheap, the 1990s have seen a resurgence of hundreds of “pirate” radio signals — unlicensed, low-power operators around the country that start their own stations, with crappy (and illegal) homemade equipment, erratic broadcast schedules, and even more erratic content. That content can, on its best days, do what radio has largely forgotten it is capable of: Serve as direct contact within a community, giving a voice to the unheard. It can also, of course, be self- indulgent crap. As with public-access television, that’s the beauty of it. It’s not the same old McRadio.

For the Federal Communications Commission, the microradio (a.k.a. “pirate”) wave has been a nightmare. The FCC fines operators and sometimes seizes equipment. But finding and silencing the stations, especially on a limited enforcement-budget, has been like trying to plug a crumbling dike. Even worse, legal challenges, like the one brought by Free Radio Berkeley operator Stephen Dunifer, have threatened to overturn the FCC’s 21-year-old ban on low-power FM signals.

Microradio advocates have charged — with some hints of success in court — that the FCC is being disingenuous when it claims that the ban is meant to keep all radio interference-free. In fact low-power stations are perfectly feasible (they’re legal in Canada, Europe, and Japan). The ban amounts to a restraint on free speech — reserving publicly owned airwaves for free use by only the wealthiest corporate operators.

In response, on January 28, the FCC took the first big step toward legalizing low-power broadcasting, and, as a result, possibly transforming the nature of radio as we know it. The FCC (which currently only allows commercial stations of the equivalent of 6,000 watts and up) proposes to open up new classes of 100 to 1,000 (an 8- to 15-mile listening radius), 10 to 100 (two to seven miles), and one to 10 watt (one to two miles) stations. The first two would be new commercial services, and their impact would be substantial.. The tiny signals are the equivalent of the neighborhood service micro-radio pirates have aspired to. The FCC reports having received over 13,000 inquiries in the last year from what FCC chair William Kennard calls “churches, community groups, elementary schools, universities, small businesses, and minority groups…who want to use the airwaves.”

Such an onslaught of new signals would revolutionize radio. The smallest of the low-power radio outlets would mean stations with clear-signal radiuses of only a mile or two — hundreds in one city. Potentially. The FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM, Docket 99-25), with a public comment deadline of April 12, proposes that operators be noncommercial, not rebroadcast existing signals, not own stations in the same market, and operate no more than five or ten stations total. Licenses would be granted electronically in a matter of days. Operators previously busted for running pirate stations would be at the end of the line.

But it’s unclear how the FCC will choose among competing stations for the same license: through competitive hearings, as is now done for AM and FM radio, or auction, as is done for cellular and microwave signals. A competitive hearing involves the FCC weighing which, among competing applicants, would best serve the public interest; auction, on the other hand, is a fundraising mechanism that favors the broadcast applicants with the deepest pockets. All of these facets are up for public comment, and in response, the broadcast industry, both commercial and non-commercial, is mortified.

They claim that micro-radio poses a technical hazard and will interfere with existing stations. But the real fear is that they will interfere with profits. NPR stations — which are supposed to be the nation’s alternative to commercial radio — fear the loss both of audience and the long strings of rebroadcasters (“translators”) many stations maintain. (Why listen to Cokie Roberts speculate about Monica when the guy across the street does a better job?) For the big corporations that own large chains of stations, even minute losses of audience mean lost revenue. Worse, as National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton sniffs, “if everybody owns a radio station, then nobody hears anything.”

That, of course, is exactly the point — people can actively communicate, as opposed to passively absorbing drivel. But as with the Internet — a technology that’s rapidly merging with broadcast technology — the multitude of voices has the potential to dramatically change how we get information, or how we talk with our neighbors. If the Internet represents the coming global village, low-power radio is a revival of the old-fashioned, local kind of communication. The revolution, in this case, means talking with your neighbor.

Unfortunately, low-power radio is far from a done deal. Given the industry opposition, it’s in some respects surprising that the FCC, under new commissioner Kinneard, even proposed the deal. But public demand, and the activism of more than a few broadcast outlaws, forced it, and hopefully, public demand will carry the day when the FCC makes its decision. Hopefully also, the shape of that decision will exclude both existing broadcast chains — who’ve already bored us to tears — and parasitic nonprofit chains, such as universities and religious networks, who already have their air pulpits. Maybe, just maybe, this will be a chance for the public to not only hear something different, but to be heard themselves.

If nothing else, it may mean that public demand for genuinely local radio that doesn’t rely on national music services, programming consultants, and preternaturally smooth diction will finally be heard. Whether we get such relief depends on whose voices are the loudest over the next several weeks before the FCC decides.

Information on the FCC’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and how to offer public comment is available through the FCC’s Web site. Also, check the Web site of low-power radio advocates at www.radio4all.org.