FCC Reverses Stance on "Microradio"

Until the end of January, the Federal Communications Commission had opposed the proliferation of low-power FM radio stations. "Microradio," as it is sometimes called, has been an ongoing problem for the agency since inexpensive broadcasting gear became widely available several years ago. Primarily an urban phenomenon, microradio consists of individuals and small groups with a hodgepodge of equipment, who wedge themselves into unoccupied slots in the crowded FM band.

Under optimum conditions, microradio's low-wattage output extends a few miles and is heard by only a few hundred listeners. Such outlaw stations, encompassing the full spectrum of political views, religious beliefs, and musical tastes, have been the cause of recurring complaints from major commercial broadcasters. FCC enforcers have responded by dutifully shutting down as many unlicensed stations as they could, seizing equipment and imposing fines.

Microradio operators have justified their activities by pointing to constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech, and claim the present licensing system unfairly favors wealthy corporations over ordinary individuals. The broadcasting industry was swept by waves of consolidation after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened restrictions on the number of stations that could be operated by a single owner.

Now the agency has reversed its position on small operators. In the last week of January, the Commission voted 4-1 to reverse a 20-year ban on such licenses, and is entertaining proposals to create thousands of new, fully licensed, low-tech FM radio stations with outputs of from 1W to 1000W. (A typical 1W station covers an area about two miles in diameter; a 1000W station will reach up to 18 miles.) The FCC ruling was a favorable response to a campaign for legal, low-cost local radio by schools, churches, and other community groups. It was seen as a blow to commercial broadcasters, who objected strenuously and had lobbied hard to keep the old system in place.

FCC Chairman Bill Kennard said the proposals "could create a whole new class of voices using the airwaves---opportunities for churches and community groups---so many of whom feel that they are being frozen out of opportunities to become broadcasters."

The agency has received 13,000 inquiries in the past year from churches, schools, municipal governments, and individuals wanting to start low-power stations. Kennard, the Commission's first black chairman, is known to be more sensitive to the plight of minorities, underfunded community groups, and other underprivileged people than any of his predecessors.

Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, which worked for the regulatory change, said, "This permits people who have felt abandoned by commercial broadcasting to use an inexpensive medium to create an audio soapbox for discussion and debate."

Commercial broadcasters fear that the new stations will wreak havoc with reception of their signals. They "will likely cause devastating interference to existing broadcasters," said Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters. Kennard dismissed their concerns, saying his agency will do everything necessary to protect existing radio.

The application process for legal microradio stations will involve a background check for criminal records, but applicants won't be rejected because of unpopular views or potentially offensive material. Operators of unlicensed stations who have repeatedly disobeyed orders to cease and desist may have a harder time getting licensed. Fees for the new licenses will range from $2500 for a 1W station to $100,000 or more for a 1000W station, officials said.