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)
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
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
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