By Frank James
The Chicago Tribune
With mom-and-pop radio station owners squeezed out as broadcasting
increasingly becomes the turf of corporate giants, federal regulators
are considering whether to open the way for a wave of new radio
stations owned by everyday Americans.
The Federal Communications Commission is exploring the idea of
allowing relatively inexpensive, low-power radio stations to take to
the airwaves, the first in a series of steps that could lead to
legalizing such broadcasting.
But the idea is meeting heavy resistance from the powerful National
Association of Broadcasters. In its official comments to the FCC on
low-power radio, the broadcasters' group says the radio spectrum
already is cluttered and that an influx of new, low-power stations
would interfere with its members' broadcasts and plans to upgrade to
Proponents of the low-power broadcasting, or microradio, say it could
revive local programming while giving practically anyone the chance to
become a broadcaster, just as the Internet can make anyone with a
computer a publisher with a potentially large audience. They see it as
another electronic tool to help average Americans exercise their 1st
Amendment rights to free speech.
Low-power broadcasting also could help slow a trend that particularly
worries FCC Chairman William Kennard, the first African-American to
head the agency. A declining number of radio station owners are
minority group members even as non-whites as a whole move toward
becoming the majority of the nation's population. The Commerce
Department reported last year that minority ownership fell to 2.8
percent from 3.1 percent in 1996.
While the NAB's position is that it does not view the new broadcasters
as a financial threat, some station owners fear the new outlets could
draw away listeners and advertising revenue.
As the FCC explores ways to make microradio a reality, it is cracking
down on people who already are doing it--so-called pirate broadcasters
operating in violation of federal law. Using vehicles equipped to
detect operating radio transmitters, the FCC's airwaves police have
driven more than 200 low-power broadcasters off the air in the past
The pirates not only are violating the law by broadcasting without
licenses, says the FCC, in some instances they are endangering public
safety. The FCC has claimed, for instance, that illegal transmissions
by some pirate stations have interfered with Federal Aviation
The FCC's pursuit of pirate broadcasters, encouraged by the
broadcasters, began in earnest about a year ago amid agency fears that
illegal stations were starting to proliferate, in part because of a
northern California broadcaster named Stephen Dunifer.
Dunifer, something of the Johnny Appleseed of microradio, challenged
the FCC's constitutional authority to shut down his station, Radio
Free Berkeley, and sold transmitters over the Internet. This June, a
federal district court issued a permanent injunction against Dunifer.
``The key distinction here is there is a right way and a wrong way to
create opportunity'' for small-time broadcasting, Kennard said in a
recent interview. ``I'm only interested in doing it the right way.''
Kennard, who has been chairman less than a year, began the FCC's
consideration of microradio earlier this year.
``We're going to see if we can create more opportunity for people to
use the public's airwaves to speak to their communities without
causing interference to the incumbent broadcasters,'' he added.
``But for many people in communities like small businesses, community
groups, churches, minority companies that don't have the resources to
buy in a rapidly consolidating industry, this could be significant,''
Kennard said. ``It could give people a voice.''
It costs millions of dollars to start or purchase a commercial radio
station whose transmitter power, measured in thousands of watts,
creates a signal that can carry dozens of miles. Thus large
corporations increasingly are the only ones able to compete in much of
the ratings-driven commercial radio business, a trend accelerated by
the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which liberalized ownership
In contrast, low-power stations with a broadcast range of up to a few
miles operating often on 1 watt of power or less, can get on the air
for as little as $500. To promote diverse ownership, proposals for
low-power radio before the FCC would limit how many stations one
person could own. One petition calls for one station per owner while
another would allow as many as five so long as each were in a
different market. Without the large audiences of commercial and public
radio stations, microbroadcasters likely would narrowly tailor their
programs to their listeners, supporters say.
A neighborhood radio station, for instance, could broadcast reports
lost pets or serve a community-watch function, alerting residents to
security concerns. It could broadcast in whatever language most people
in the community speak.
New musical groups could be heard, say advocates. Specialized stations
would crop up that focused on animal rights, flying or golf. Rural
areas might particularly benefit from microradio, advocates say. ``I
live in a rural valley town where there is only one public radio
station, two Christian stations, and one commercial country station,''
said David Herman of Paonia, Colo., in comments to the FCC. ``I would
like more choices.''
The middle-of-the-road blandness many people ascribe to highly
automated commercial radio also would likely not be a problem in
``When you listen to commercial radio, basically you're actually
listening to a robot,'' said a pirate broadcaster who goes by the
pseudonym Pete triDish. He spoke at a recent discussion on microradio
at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Washington. ``You
end up having a culture that is essentially produced by scientific
analysis and machines rather than being produced by human beings.''
The broadcasts from his pirate station, Radio Mutiny in Philadelphia,
were far from ordinary radio fare until the FCC seized its equipment
last month. There was the safe-sex show hosted by Dianne the Condom
Lady, ``Incarceration Nation,'' hosted by a former prison inmate, and
``Red Sun Rising,'' a show of American Indian news and views featuring
Native American rap music.
The broadcasters' group is unmoved by arguments for low-power radio.
``It's nothing that we could support right now . . .'' because of
concerns the stations would cause technical problems for its members,
said John Earnhardt, the NAB's director of communications.
He denies the microradio advocates' claim that the broadcasters group
is opposed because it views the new stations as an economic threat.
``It's not like you can build a network or anything like that. The
commercial aspects of this are not great and I think we do recognize