By Bruce Alpert
Washington bureau/The Times-Picayune
April 20, 1999
WASHINGTON - New Orleans jazz musician Ellis Marsalis Jr. said he's learned the hard way "how difficult it is to get my music onto ever-tighter radio play lists."
So when he heard about a proposal to license hundreds of new low-power FM radio stations, he quickly wrote the Federal Communications Commission to express his support.
The proposal, now being considered by the FCC, would authorize up to 1,000 new stations operating at 100 to 1,000 watts, capable of serving an area with a radius of 3.5 to 8.8 miles. It is supported by musicians like Marsalis, colleges and some community groups. It is opposed by the broadcast industry, which fears interference with current FM radio signals as well as more competition that could force some marginally profitable stations off the air.
Under the plan envisioned by FCC Chairman William Kennard, community groups, elementary schools, colleges, small businesses and minority groups would be encouraged to start up these relatively low-cost stations, dramatically expanding programming diversity across America.
Marsalis, who teaches music at the University of New Orleans, said new stations would allow more Louisiana musicians to make a living in their profession.
"The many musical genres emanating from Louisiana defy commercial radio categorization," Marsalis wrote on behalf of the Louisiana Music Commission, which he chairs. "Cajun, zydeco, swamp pop, jazz, blues, gospel, country, rock, hip hop and more all spring forth from the fertile musical landscape of this state."
Yet, he wrote, "many of our artists barely survive because they cannot garner radio air play in major markets."
To Marsalis, licensing new radio stations, even with limited range, could give musicians the air play they need to "create a demand for their appearances."
Although cost estimates vary dramatically, based largely on the quality of the transmission and broadcast equipment chosen, a station could be created for as little as several thousand dollars, supporters say. But one group advocating new stations, the Low Power Radio Coalition, suggests that "to do it right and get a good signal, you're probably talking about $75,000."
"There really is a good chance with this proposal to expand the diversity of programming available in many of our communities," coalition member Michael Bracy said. He said that as you travel around the country, you hear more stations that sound alike, reflecting the trend of stations owned by huge national corporations with no direct ties to the cities from which their stations broadcast.
The "micro-radio" proposal is facing opposition from broadcasters, who are seeking help from congressional members, including House telecommunications subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-Chackbay.
Tauzin, who is generally sympathetic to the industry, said he isn't necessarily opposed to the concept of expanding small stations. But he warned the FCC not to rush forward with its plan until Congress gives the go-ahead.
Tauzin said his concerns are threefold. Will the creation of hundreds of new stations interfere with the signals of existing stations? Will competition from lots of small stations knock off some struggling minority-owned and public radio stations?
"And the third is sort of an open-ended question about who will get these stations, whether or not they would be platforms for hate groups in America," said Tauzin, who warns of stations operated "by skinheads and people like David Duke."
The FCC won't comment on rumors that, in response to warnings from Tauzin and others in Congress, it has decided to put off a decision on whether to license the low-power stations until next year. It had been expected by this summer.
Kennard remains committed to moving forward.
"The radio airwaves are big enough for all of us," Kennard said. "There is enough room for the voices of churches, schools and neighborhoods, as well as established radio companies. I'm sure that Chairman Tauzin does not want to limit Americans' choices to who or what they can hear on the radio."
Dillard University President Michael Lomax said he's excited by the prospect of new radio opportunities, noting that his school's radio station "can't even be heard in many places on our campus."
"I think we would primarily look at providing programming for the surrounding community," he said. "We have a rich musical heritage in New Orleans and here at Dillard, but you can't hear much of it now on the radio. And I think we would also want to provide some public affairs programming that I think would be of interest to our college community and the greater community around us."
Xavier University communications department Chairman Chris Campbell said that while public radio stations are supposed to be providing programming not available on commercial stations, "there are still lots of gaps in programming."
"There are just so many areas of programming and so many gaps that public radio can't fill that maybe these low-power stations can accommodate," Campbell said. "We don't have a station at Xavier currently, but I think there would be interest if the FCC opens up the low-power options."
Station operators are skeptical.
WCKW general sales manager Stephen Levet said he doesn't see how the FCC could add new stations without infringing on the signals of existing stations, despite the agency's insistence that it won't be a serious problem.
"And I have to wonder how a 100-watt station with just a very limited coverage area could generate enough advertising revenue to pay for equipment, pay for the staff and programming," Levet said. "I think the FCC may be promising a lot more than it can deliver."
In a filing with the FCC, broadcasters' groups, including the Louisiana Broadcasting Association, asked the FCC to pull back from its micro-station proposal.
"The United States enjoys the dedication and accomplishments of a free-over-the-air locally based, full-service radio broadcast industry, which is the envy of the world," the groups said. "These broadcasters serve their communities in powerful and helpful ways, while at the same time providing endless hours of enjoyment to the listening public. The FCC should not jeopardize this critically important full service industry by advancing a scheme that rests on speculative benefits and poses serious regulatory and technical problems."
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