Getting Dialed In 

Low-Power FM offers communities a voice like never before

Last week several thousand demonstrators took to the streets of San Francisco for three days of Seattle-style protests against the growing consolidation in the communications industry. The demonstrations featured street marches, community workshops, roundtable discussions, as well as the requisite chanting, shouting, placard waving and arrests for civil disobedience.

If you didn’t hear anything about it on morning talk radio or your local news, it’s hardly surprising, considering that the protests targeted the National Association of Broadcasting (NAB), the lobbying arm of the broadcast industry. Each year the NAB spends millions of dollars to protect its interests in Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and, the protestors argue, to keep the public airwaves out of the hands of the public.

Notably, the NAB was instrumental in the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which allows one company to own as many as six radio stations and two television stations within a single city. Since passage of the Telecom Act, more than 4,000 radio stations have been bought out.

This latest brouhaha in San Francisco stems from efforts by the NAB to quash the licensing of so-called micropower or Low-Power FM (LPFM) radio stations. Unlike unlicensed or “pirate” radio stations, LPFM is a new class of noncommercial radio service authorized in January by the FCC that will allow community groups, schools, tribes, religious and other educational organizations to broadcast as 10-watt or 100-watt stations, capable of reaching a radius of one to two miles, or three to four miles, respectively. To better serve underrepresented groups and foster diversity and local ownership, the FCC will only license groups headquartered within 10 miles of the station they seek to operate.

Since the FCC opened its application process in May, it has received nearly 1,200 applications from community groups in the states, U.S. possessions and territories eligible to apply for LPFM licenses. (To manage the deluge of applications, the FCC has divided the nation into five groups and staggered the application process. Montana groups will not be eligible to apply until May 2001.)

What could LPFM mean for Missoula? A survey of who controls our airwaves provides some clues. According to FCC data, of the 24 FM licenses and outstanding applications in the Missoula area, only two—89.1 KUFM and 89.9 KBGA—are operated for educational or nonprofit purposes, and only two others are locally owned. The rest are owned and operated by out-of-state entities.

Still, the potential for LPFM in Missoula remains enormous. Unlike larger metropolitan areas where the FM dial is already crowded to its technical limits, Missoula’s FM dial is wide open for new entries in the 10- to 100-watt range. Based on conversations with one FCC expert, Missoula could have as many as 12-17 LPFM stations, depending upon how the frequencies are allocated.

“There’s nothing like good community radio. Nothing. It raises passions and breaks hearts like nothing else,” says Dick Dillman, a communications expert with Greenpeace International, who was in Missoula recently. Dillman, who is also a member of the Maritime Radio Historical Society, helped put a low-power radio station (KWMR) on the air a couple of years ago in Pt. Reyes Station just north of San Francisco.

Dillman explains that the technical side of setting up an LPFM station is rather basic and not prohibitively expensive. The first step is to hire a broadcast engineer to locate an available frequency on the local FM dial, and who can also complete the technical data on the FCC application. He also recommends hiring a Washington attorney who can present the documents to the FCC.

Although the administrative requirements may sound costly for most small community groups, Dillman emphasizes that with many companies anticipating a surge in radio equipment sales, some have begun offering “turnkey deals” to provide everything from the antenna, transmitter and engineering equipment to completed FCC applications. For low-budget operations, he suggests locating the studio and transmitter in the same building and scrounging around for used equipment—and qualified help.

“Usually there’s somebody who pops up out of the community who’s a wire-bender, maybe a HAM radio operator, who wants to bring down a soldering iron and have some fun,” Dillman says.

Despite claims by the NAB and other opponents to LPFM that low-power frequencies interfere with the signals of existing radio stations, air traffic controllers, FM reading services for the blind or other occupants on the FM dial, the greatest obstacle to LPFM appears to be political rather than technical. Not surprisingly, the more vocal opponents to greater access to the public airwaves are those in Congress who benefit most from NAB campaign contributions, such as Sen. Conrad Burns, who has already received $5,000 from the NAB in 2000 alone.

“Why, amidst all this opportunity for broadcasters, have you chosen to muster your considerable resources to deny churches and schools and community-based organizations just a little piece of the broadcast pie?” FCC Chairman William Kennard asked NAB members at their annual convention in Las Vegas last April. “What this is about is fear of new entrants in the market. It is no different from the battles to kill low-power TV, cable TV, satellite radio and satellite television.”

Although the FCC has yet to license any new LPFM stations—a bill in Congress backed by the NAB threatens to weaken or undo the FCC rules changes—LPFM advocates say that the LPFM revolution has already begun and the airwaves will not remain silent for long.

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