Rockers Back Low-Power Radio

Low-power radio is once again an issue at the Federal Communications Commission, and this time the agency is feeling the heat not only from community activists, but from rock artists as well. Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and the Indigo Girls are just a few of the performers who have rallied behind a proposal to license 100W-to-1000W radio stations to private citizens, according to Frank Ahrens in the October 24 edition of the Washington Post.

Low-power transmitters have become extremely affordable in recent years, and the FCC has had an ongoing battle with unlicensed broadcasters, or "radio pirates," as the commercial broadcasting industry prefers to call them. The pirates include music fans and record collectors, political activists of every variety, and neighborhood organizations like churches and schools. Most of them operate their transmitters illegally because they cannot afford exorbitant license fees, which can run into the upper six figures. This factor has given large corporations broadcasting hegemony, and has contributed to the homogenization of radio programming nationwide.

FCC Chairman William Kennard is said to be in favor of issuing low-power licenses as a way of creating diversity on the airwaves. Most commercial broadcasters oppose the move, claiming that a proliferation of low-power stations would interfere with their signals.

Depending on their wattage, low-power stations can reach from a few hundred yards to a few miles. Their useful signals are limited to neighborhoods, low-power supporters say, and are therefore no threat to big commercial interests.

Both sides in the issue are presenting engineering reports to FCC commissioners. The Commission earlier this year voted in favor of low-power radio, but, under pressure from commercial interests, has since reconsidered that decision. There is no timetable for resolving the current discussion.

Although the FCC's official stance has always been that "the airwaves belong to the people," most community radio—primarily college stations and PBS affiliates—is allocated to a few frequencies at the low end of the FM band. Issuing low-power licenses would likely change that. The rock performers backing the Micro Radio Coalition declared the 10-day stretch between October 14 and 24 as "Left Off the Dial: 10 Days for Low-Power FM." Some concert revenues have been donated to the cause, Ahrens noted. The agency will entertain public commentary on the issue through the month of November.