NEW VOICES IN THE AIR
Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard has come
with an ingenious plan to, as he puts it, "create a whole new class of
voices who can use the airwaves for their communities." Kennard proposes
to hand out the agency's first low-power broadcasting licenses to several
hundred new FM stations that will broadcast to areas no larger than 18
miles in diameter. While today's FM dial is dominated by the often
predictable and numbing programming of Lite FMs and Power whatevers,
Kennard's plan would promote variety.
Record collectors, for example, could play their rarities around the
clock; urban ethnic communities could have their own talk radio outlets,
and Native Americans could broadcast to listeners on reservations.
This is the kind of diversity that's been lacking in radio since
Congress relaxed limits on station ownership in 1996, allowing a handful
of networks to dominate the publicly owned airwaves.
Not surprisingly, the networks, represented by the National Assn. of
Broadcasters, are not keen on Kennard's proposal. NAB President Eddie
Fritts says the FCC is being irresponsible. "This proposal," he said,
"will likely cause devastating interference to existing broadcasters and
will challenge the FCC as guardian of the spectrum."
In fact, Congress created the FCC to safeguard the public interest,
stand guard so non-network voices never get on the air. Kennard's
proposal, moreover, protects against interference by requiring low-power
stations to follow long-standing channel separation rules.
While the FCC has fast-tracked Kennard's proposal for a final vote by
summer, it has yet to figure out how to prevent big broadcasters from
snapping up the new stations. A good start would be rules requiring that
license owners be local residents and that low-power stations broadcast
original programming rather than network programming.
Implementing Kennard's plan will be difficult, given the many
applicants, from churches and town councils to currently illegal "pirate
radio" operators, that probably will compete for the limited space on the
crowded FM band in urban markets. Los Angeles, for example, has band space
for only one 1,000-watt and six 100-watt stations.
The FAA [sic!] has already received 13,000 license applications.
Obviously there are voices waiting to be heard.
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