(l o w) Power to the People

Mike Steindel (CLaw7MAn@webtv.net)
Fri, 12 Mar 1999 00:54:47 -0800 (PST)


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This story comes by way of  www.motherjones.com it is somewhat off
topic, but in regards to activism and getting the message out it could
be an important tool in our arsenal. Some of my earliest and fondest
memories of radical change in the 60's was delivered over FM
Radio....Not the crap thats on today. mike        
(l o w) Power to the People 
by Geov Parrish
March 9, 1999 

Radio sucks. That's the inescapable conclusion of all too many people in
cities and towns of all sizes these days: folks fed up with stale music,
predictable banter, or the insufferable smugness of National Public
Radio. 

Since the Communications Act of 1996, it's gotten even worse, as huge
conglomerates buy each other out, creating chains of hundreds of
co-owned stations. 

With the trading frenzy since 1996, station values have soared, making
station ownership in cities of any size unaffordable for all but the
corporate few. 

The homogenized result deprives audiences of local voices, local
perspectives, and any meaningful variety in the choices available on the
radio dial. Some stations, in fact, employ satellite technology that
allows remote-control networks and DJs to pretend to be local in
hundreds of cities at once. Meanwhile, so-called noncommercial stations
have scrambled to compete by adding thinly disguised commercials
("underwriting") and, as with Pacifica Radio, drumming out voices of
political or cultural dissent. 

Amidst this deadening of the airwaves, some hardy souls have fought
back. Because the technology is simple and relatively cheap, the 1990s
have seen a resurgence of hundreds of "pirate" radio signals --
unlicensed, low-power operators around the country that start their own
stations, with crappy (and illegal) homemade equipment, erratic
broadcast schedules, and even more erratic content. 
That content can, on its best days, do what radio has largely forgotten
it is capable of: Serve as direct contact within a community, giving a
voice to the unheard. It can also, of course, be self- indulgent crap.
As with public-access television, that's the beauty of it. It's not the
same old McRadio. 

For the Federal Communications Commission, the microradio (a.k.a.
"pirate") wave has been a nightmare. The FCC fines operators and
sometimes seizes equipment. But finding and silencing the stations,
especially on a limited enforcement-budget, has been like trying to plug
a crumbling dike. Even worse, legal challenges, like the one brought by
Free Radio Berkeley operator Stephen Dunifer, have threatened to
overturn the FCC's 21-year-old ban on low-power FM signals. 

Microradio advocates have charged -- with some hints of success in court
-- that the FCC is being disingenuous when it claims that the ban is
meant to keep all radio interference-free. In fact low-power stations
are perfectly feasible (they're legal in Canada, Europe, and Japan). The
ban amounts to a restraint on free speech -- reserving publicly owned
airwaves for free use by only the wealthiest corporate operators. 

In response, on January 28, the FCC took the first big step toward
legalizing low-power broadcasting, and, as a result, possibly
transforming the nature of radio as we know it. The FCC (which currently
only allows commercial stations of the equivalent of 6,000 watts and up)
proposes to open up new classes of 100 to 1,000 (an 8- to 15-mile
listening radius), 10 to 100 (two to seven miles), and one to 10 watt
(one to two miles) stations. The first two would be new commercial
services, and their impact would be substantial.. The tiny signals are
the equivalent of the neighborhood service micro-radio pirates have
aspired to. The FCC reports having received over 13,000 inquiries in the
last year from what FCC chair William Kennard calls "churches, community
groups, elementary schools, universities, small businesses, and minority
groups...who want to use the airwaves." 

Such an onslaught of new signals would revolutionize radio. The smallest
of the low-power radio outlets would mean stations with clear-signal
radiuses of only a mile or two -- hundreds in one city. 

Potentially. The FCC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM, Docket
99-25), with a public comment deadline of April 12, proposes that
operators be noncommercial, not rebroadcast existing signals, not own
stations in the same market, and operate no more than five or ten
stations total. Licenses would be granted electronically in a matter of
days. 

Operators previously busted for running pirate stations would be at the
end of the line. 

But it's unclear how the FCC will choose among competing stations for
the same license: through competitive hearings, as is now done for AM
and FM radio, or auction, as is done for cellular and microwave signals.
A competitive hearing involves the FCC weighing which, among competing
applicants, would best serve the public interest; auction, on the other
hand, is a fundraising mechanism that favors the broadcast applicants
with the deepest pockets. All of these facets are up for public comment,
and in response, the broadcast industry, both commercial and
non-commercial, is mortified. 

They claim that micro-radio poses a technical hazard and will interfere
with existing stations. But the real fear is that they will interfere
with profits. NPR stations -- which are supposed to be the nation's
alternative to commercial radio -- fear the loss both of audience and
the long strings of rebroadcasters ("translators") many stations
maintain. 

(Why listen to Cokie Roberts speculate about Monica when the guy across
the street does a better job?) For the big corporations that own large
chains of stations, even minute losses of audience mean lost revenue.
Worse, as National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton
sniffs, "if everybody owns a radio station, then nobody hears anything." 

That, of course, is exactly the point -- people can actively
communicate, as opposed to passively absorbing drivel. But as with the
Internet -- a technology that's rapidly merging with broadcast
technology -- the multitude of voices has the potential to dramatically
change how we get information, or how we talk with our neighbors. If the
Internet represents the coming global village, low-power radio is a
revival of the old-fashioned, local kind of communication. The
revolution, in this case, means talking with your neighbor. 

Unfortunately, low-power radio is far from a done deal. Given the
industry opposition, it's in some respects surprising that the FCC,
under new commissioner Kinneard, even proposed the deal. But public
demand, and the activism of more than a few broadcast outlaws, forced
it, and hopefully, public demand will carry the day when the FCC makes
its decision. 
Hopefully also, the shape of that decision will exclude both existing
broadcast chains -- who've already bored us to tears -- and parasitic
nonprofit chains, such as universities and religious networks, who
already have their air pulpits. Maybe, just maybe, this will be a chance
for the public to not only hear something different, but to be heard
themselves. 

If nothing else, it may mean that public demand for genuinely local
radio that doesn't rely on national music services, programming
consultants, and preternaturally smooth diction will finally be heard.
Whether we get such relief depends on whose voices are the loudest over
the next several weeks before the FCC decides. 

Information on the FCC's Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and how to offer
public comment is available through the FCC's Web site. AT:  www.fcc.gov
Also, check the Web site of low-power radio advocates at
www.radio4all.org.    


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