FCC Cracks Down on "Microradio"

The Federal Communications Commission is fighting an epidemic called "microradio." The agency has closed 250 unlicensed stations in the past year, most of them low-powered urban pip-squeaks with less than 100W of power and broadcast radii of 10 miles or less. The typical microradio station offers an off-center perspective on local, national, and world events to a listenership of a few hundred people, and loses money in the process.

The Commission has often expressed its belief that "the airwaves belong to the people," but the wave of consolidations that swept through the broadcasting industry in the wake of loosened regulation has left control of radio in most major markets in the hands of a few huge conglomerates. William Kennard, the FCC's chairman, has acknowledged the homogenization of broadcasting that these consolidations have brought. "Radio has become the province of multibillion-dollar corporations," he said recently. "The loss of small religious stations and local programming is very unfortunate." Kennard said he was looking at ways to increase the minority share of radio stations, but did not specify a strategy.

License fees range well into six figures for high-powered stations in large metropolitan areas. Fees for non-commercial stations, such as the public broadcasting and college stations that populate the lower end of the FM dial, can also be exorbitant---a fact that has contributed to the proliferation of small "pirate" stations. For a few hundred dollars, a would-be broadcaster can set up a rig in a spare room and go on the air.

That's what Richard Edmonson did at 93.7MHz in San Francisco. His 100W "San Francisco Liberation Radio" was on the air 12 hours a day for five years, offering music, news, and commentary---all of it originating in the living room of his apartment. Edmudson was among those caught in the FCC's net, and ceased broadcasting in June. "If the FCC's really interested in free speech, they would be doing everything in their power to make microradio happen," he said bitterly. "Instead, they're trying to stamp it out." Critics of microradio like to point out that the low-fidelity "Citizen's Band" is open to all at very low cost.

The National Association of Broadcasters has been campaigning fiercely to eliminate the uncooperative upstarts. Jeff Baumann, executive vice president of NAB, has been quoted as saying that the airwaves shouldn't be open to anyone who happens to have a transmitter. "Market forces" should instead decide what gets broadcast, he says. "To inject new stations into an FM band that is already highly concentrated is just plain wrong," Baumann told the New York Times.

Apparently chairman Kennard agrees. "We can't have pirates just signing onto frequencies as they choose and broadcasting willy-nilly on the airwaves," he said. "If there's not some discipline to this process, it just won't work."

In the September issue of Brill's Content, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt and former FCC chief of staff Blair Levin point out the irony that it is the failure of "local" commercial radio stations to be a source of local news and information that has led to the need for substitutes such as microradio. Yet when William Kennard proposed issuing licenses to microradio operators, the established broadcasting community buried the idea very quickly.