FCC Gives Green Light to Low-Power FM Stations

The FM radio spectrum could soon get a lot more crowded, thanks to rules recently adopted by the Federal Communications Commission. New stations with broadcasting power of between 1W and 100W will be cropping up soon in communities all over the country, provided they don't interfere with existing stations, and provided they remain strictly noncommercial.

The move to empower community radio has been an ongoing controversy at the agency, which for several years has been fighting radio "pirates" in big cities and small towns. The availability of inexpensive audio and broadcasting equipment has made radio operation feasible for a larger number of organizations than ever before, but exorbitant license fees have made it impossible for them to do so legally. Now FCC chairman William Kennard has ushered in new rules designed to accommodate low-power broadcasters—including schools, churches, art groups, fringe political organizations, and individual music lovers. Kennard sees the plan, two years in the making, as a way to give the marginalized and the disenfranchised a voice in an age when media of all types is increasingly controlled by a few large conglomerates.

One strategy to make room for the new stations involves removing the "third adjacent channel interference protection"—the now-mandatory unoccupied bandwidth between stations. This could adversely affect the signal quality of existing stations.

This proposal has provoked protests from the National Association of Broadcasters, which has vigorously opposed the low-power community radio movement. A statement issued by the NAB in the wake of the FCC's announcement sharply criticized the federal agency for what it called "the advancement of social engineering over spectrum integrity." The NAB response claims that "every legitimate scientific study validates that additional interference will result from low-power FM." The FCC approved the new rules in late January with a 4-1 vote, with commissioner Michael Powell dissenting.

The Consumer Electronics Association has sided with the NAB in the debate, issuing the following official statement on January 24:

"We share the FCC's worthy commitment to promoting greater access to the airwaves. Unfortunately, we have found that the method chosen by the Commission—specifically, the removal of third adjacent channel protection—may result in interference to existing FM radio service and would adversely effect consumers' investment in the 710 million FM receivers currently in use in the United States. In addition, these new FM stations will cause interference that may hinder the introduction of terrestrial digital audio broadcasting (DAB).

"CEA conducted extensive FM receiver tests with the support of National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. These tests, which were submitted to the FCC, demonstrated that third adjacent channel interference protection should be retained to prevent new interference to existing FM reception.

"We look forward to working with the Commission on additional ways to promote diversity in radio voices. But this laudable goal must not come at the expense of impairing the quality of FM radio service that the American public receives today."

Licenses for the new stations will be awarded on a merit system that includes a commitment to local programming. Applicants must have resided within their respective communities for at least two years, and will be limited to one station nationwide. No existing broadcasters or other media companies will be allowed to own a low-power station. The first slots to be filled will be 100W stations, which can serve a radius of about 3.5 miles. Ten-watt licenses will be issued next, for stations with radii of one to two miles. The FCC hopes that the new stations will be on the air by late spring or early summer.

The NAB's man on Capitol Hill, Representative Billy Tauzin (R-LA), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, has called the concept "ill-advised." Public broadcasters have also opposed low-power radio, somewhat surprisingly, because the new stations will undoubtedly encroach on their markets.

Critics of the new program, including at least one FCC commissioner, point out that dense urban areas, with radio dials already full, may not benefit from any community stations. Most of the licenses will be issued in smaller cities, towns, and rural areas. Community radio stations are "a partial antidote to the negative effects of consolidation," according to commissioner Gloria Tristani, who said the effort "promotes localism and diversity not by limiting the rights of existing voices, but by adding new voices to the mix."

On January 20—within a few days of approving low-power radio licenses—the FCC also adopted new rules aimed at boosting minority hiring by broadcasters. The new rules, which replace a set of regulations struck down as unconstitutional by a federal appeals court, require broadcasters to keep race-related employment statistics. Stations must offer minority-recruitment programs and post job listings to minorities. The resulting employment statistics will be used by the FCC to "track trends," and will not be a factor in commercial license renewals.

The NAB opposed the minority hiring initiative as well, saying it would impose "burdensome paperwork records" on member stations. An NAB letter to the Commission before the vote pointed to a 39% increase from 1998 to 1999 in the number of female general managers of TV stations as proof that discrimination is disappearing. An almost-30-year-old FCC regulation requiring large broadcasters to provide information about the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of women and minorities had been struck down by a challenge from the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the District of Columbia US Court of Appeals in 1998. The church had been charged by the FCC with violating equal-opportunity rules by giving preferential treatment in hiring for its two radio stations to seminarians and their spouses. The court ruled in the church's favor, pointing out that the FCC had never demonstrated any effect on the content of broadcasts attributable to the racial or ethnic mix of low-level employees.