from the July 1997 issue of Z Magazine

The FCC and Community Radio
By Charles Fairchild


As part of his arguments submitted to the FCC regarding the possibility of low-power radio in the U.S., Free Radio Berkeley founder Stephen Dunifer suggested that low-power broadcasting in Canada could act as a model for licensing-related efforts in the U.S. The arguments used by commissioners to counter Dunifer fell into one of three categories: wrong, irrelevant, or not true. The central argument made by the Commission against low-power radio is that such operations would inevitably cause interference with existing broadcasters. While the evidence supporting this argument is limited at best, as Alexander Cockburn noted in The Nation in 1995, "in its role as the rich folks' cop the FCC has been soliciting complaints from licensed broadcasters to buttress its specious claims about interference." Also, the FCC argued that since there are far fewer Canadian radio stations, using more or less the same number of frequencies as in the U.S., interference is not a consideration in that country, an argument that is not entirely accurate or in some cases even relevant. Perhaps the most compelling evidence to contradict the protestations of the FCC is the fact that "low-power" radio stations exist all across the U.S. and Canada, and not just in small isolated communities.

The spurious arguments put forward by the FCC are mere contrivances designed to obscure the real reasons for the lack of a thriving, vital, and truly national community radio sector in the United States. These are the disastrous spectrum management policies of the FCC and the collusion of the commercial and public radio establishments in their continuation. These policies include the supposed prohibition of any radio broadcasting below 100 watts. It is often useful to compare the spectrum management policies of the FCC with its regulatory counterparts in other countries. Canada is a particularly striking example as such a comparison highlights exactly why the FCC has banned low-power radio and continues to ignore the ongoing identity crisis which has enveloped public access and community radio over the last decade or so. This story also clarifies exactly why community radio stations in the U.S. have been so mired in an apparently endless series of crises while at the same time the form has been flourishing to our north.

Numerous aboriginal communities began to experiment with unlicensed low-power radio stations as early as 1958 out of economic and cultural necessity. Many found that radio could save lives and ease the harsh necessities of the trapline. Others were spurred into action in part by the Canadian government's Accelerated Coverage Plan which, in the 1950s, began beaming an enormous amount of satellite programming to people who did not ask for it and did not want it. The use of locally controlled radio equipment was in part a reaction to a tide of English-language television and radio which engulfed the north and continues to aggressively push aside local expression. These experiments eventually grew into full-fledged radio stations and later into a large number of aboriginal radio and communication societies which represent hundreds of communities. Some print newspapers and many produce radio and television programs in varying amounts of Inuit, Ojibway, Cree, Micmac, English, French, and some local languages and dialects. Currently there are over 300 aboriginal communities using low-power transmitters and other community access radio equipment. While suffering from dramatic budget cuts made early in the 1990s, most still manage to produce programming, provide much-needed communication services, and distribute information in a variety of media. More importantly, they do so in the languages spoken by the people they represent.

In addition to the hundreds of low-power stations used in northern Canada, low-power radio exists in some of the most crowded radio dials on the continent, including those in southern Quebec, Ontario, and even Metropolitan Toronto. These broadcasting operations would be considered illegal in the U.S. due to insufficient wattage. For example, CHRY is a 50-watt station which operates from the campus of York University, set in the far northwest corner of Metropolitan Toronto. The campus and the station are set in the much-maligned Jane-Finch corridor, a low- to middle-income neighborhood named for the intersection of Jane Street and Finch Avenue which is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Canada. The station's signal reaches about eight miles or so and, as a result, its programming is largely reflective of the community in which it is situated, including programs by and for students and the West Indian and Asian communities in the area. Another low-power station in Toronto is CKRG 800 AM on the campus of York University's Glendon College which specializes in French language programming.

Apart from these actual radio stations, the FCC ignored other equally obvious facts in its rebuke of Dunifer. Canadian regulators have long had to account for the huge number of U.S. radio stations whose signals have extensive reach into Canada and which have constrained domestic development for decades. This is hot a reciprocal concern for U.S. stations because of long-standing international agreements that guarantee control over the vast majority continental and regional "clear channel" frequencies. In cities like Windsor, just across the river from Detroit, as well as Montreal and Toronto, the radio and television bands are more crowded than those of comparably sized U.S. cities, precisely because of allowances made for U.S. broadcasters. Yet despite this imposed reality, in Windsor, Toronto, and Montreal Canadian broadcast regulators have found room for several radio stations of 50 watts and under, including CKHQ at Kanesetake and CKRK at Kahnawake, native reserves near Montreal, as well CFRU at the University of Guelph (near Toronto) and CJAM at University of Windsor. Unlike U.S., however, the Canadian regulatory regime governing community radio does not apply arbitrary blanket prohibitions on types of radio stations based only on considerations like their radiating power but takes into account the social context and function of a particular radio station. In most countries this is called "public policy. "

Perhaps most surprisingly, a large number of low-power AM broadcasters exist all across U.S. as well, but these are "correct" kinds of low-power broadcasters, the kind which "offer travelers news and information on attractions and parking weather at airports, along highways, and in parks all across country," according to Broadcasting Magazine. Further, the number of applications by local governments for these kinds of services have increased dramatically in recent years. The AM band has even increased in size recently to accommodate these local information services and new commercial stations. No consideration has been given to competing possibilities, as the imagined realm of the "public interest" isn't nearly as inflexible as the FCC's logic. What should be clear is that much of the evidence cited by the FCC to buttress its claim that low-power radio operations would cause unacceptable interference with existing broadcasters remain at best unsubstantiated, selectively applied, and in some cases entirely irrelevant.

 The Politics of Policy

The FCC has another more subtle reason for its refusal to allow the existence of low-power radio: the near-total policy vacuum regarding community radio in the U.S. This vacuum has ensured that the development of community radio in this country has only been allowed within the limits determined by the existing public radio establishment. This is largely responsible for the legal difficulties low-power radio advocates are now facing. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, organized political pressure on the FCC regarding community radio did not come from grassroots activists, but from an institutional alliance between National Public Radio (NPR) and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB). Laboring under the impression that the available slots on the FM band were rapidly disappearing, the NPR/NFCB alliance pushed for what they called the "professionalization" of public and community radio. In 1978 both organizations convinced the FCC to constrict the activities and number of 10-watt stations and give preferential treatment to their wealthier higher-wattage counterparts. To accomplish this policy triumph, NPR and the NFCB presented a series of recommendations to the FCC regarding the future of community radio. In their 1980 book, Radio in the Television Age, Peter Fornatale and Joshua Mills note the content of these suggestions:

"(1) stations of less than 100 watts will be required to move to the commercial spectrum, if any room is available. If not, they will be allowed to stay in the non-commercial band only if they can prove that they will not interfere with any other stations.

 (2) Low-power stations will no long be protected from interference, in effect losing all practical spectrum-use rights.

 (3) Low-power stations must operate at least 36 hours a week and at least 5 hours a day.

 (4) Stations broadcasting less than 12 hours a day will be required to share their frequencies in agreements created and enforced by the FCC. As has been noted elsewhere, the FCC has gone well beyond even these strident provisions. "

The most unexpected consequence of the attempted consolidation of non-commercial radio in the U.S. has been the low-power radio movement. A movement was created comprised of precisely those operations whose existence the public radio establishment aimed to prohibit, founded by those whose interests this same establishment repeatedly claimed to serve. Most interesting is the adoption by the FCC in the Dunifer case of the core concept which propped up the arguments used by the public radio alliance in their palace coup: spectrum scarcity Representatives of NPR and the NFCB argued that since FM frequencies were scarce, the limited space in the noncommercial portion of the FM band should not be taken up by "unprofessional" operations with the kind of limited range and (implicitly) limited appeal of low-power radio. 0f course, spectrum scarcity, where it can be said to exist at all, is not a natural condition, but an imposed one. It has been created by the spectrum management and use policies of the FCC, not by the activities of 10-watt broadcasters.

More specifically, it has been the deregulatory policies the FCC has followed since 1980 which have put the most pressure on remaining frequencies.

Deregulation has resulted in drastic over-licensing of the FM band and a subsequent and predictable wave of station bankruptcies These are convenient facts those who are now building continental networks by scooping up large number of stations at bargain-basement prices from overextended entrepreneurs trying to get out of a business in which monstrous economies of scale predominate. The most important fact understand in relation to the arguments of spectrum scarcity adopted by the NPR/NFCB alliance is that, as deregulation began in earnest 1980, those claiming to represent public and community radio did not fight the policy or offer any practical alternatives for the independent development of non-commercial radio, but instead enter into a tactical alliance with the FCC and in the end became beneficiaries of a disastrous policy. The legal inadmissibility of low-power radio is not due to any potent interference problems that might arise or a crowded radio spectrum It is due to the self-interest those who are most able to divide non-commercial spectrum space between themselves and influence policy-makers to transform this self-interest into law.

In contrast the Canadian experience with unlicensed and low-power radio has been made possible only by an arduous decades-long process of policy development, refinement and implementation, a process that early unlicensed experiments helped to initiate. The result has been a community radio sector which has steadily expanded from a few stations the late 1960s to several hundred today. More importantly true public access community radio has been legitimized by the state as despite the occasional factional domination of one station or another and the chronic financial difficulties many stations face, community radio is legally recognized, clearly defined, and firmly established in almost every region of the country. The process of policy development has not occurred in the United States and recent developments have made any possibility of a workable policy defining and solidifying the limits of the community radio even more remote.

The main lesson for U.S. activists to take away from Canadian community radio is that nothing is as important as a clear and practical working definition which sets the terms through which community radio can find its voice and govern its everyday operations. This definition doesn't necessarily have to be sanctioned by the state nor must it be enshrined in law, but it must exist and it must sooner or later come to define the agreed-upon limits of the form. The kind of collective definition found in Canada has allowed for change based on consensus, not force and this, in turn, has built solidarity between stations. All stations who have accepted the general definition of community radio are now implicitly allied with one another. If one station is attacked all stations are attacked; what happens to one can happen to all. The range of possible responses to the inevitable encroachment of blind power and destructive capital is wider and stronger. With this in mind it becomes less difficult to imagine a series of low-power storefront radio operations across the U.S. whose only responsibilities are to register for the use of regional frequencies set aside for community access and to reflect and record the needs and desires of their participants, listeners, or detractors.

 Charles Fairchild has written extensively about the media in Canada and the U.S. A longer version of this article appears in Seizing the Airwaves Ron Sakolsky, Stephen Dunifer, eds (AK Press, Fall 1997).