Low-Power Radio

Date: 15 Jan 2009 | posted in: information, MuniNetworks | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail
One year after FCC Chair William Kennard introduced a tentative plan to legalize low power FM stations, the FCC finally enacted rules for microradio on January 20, 2000. "Every day it seems like we read about more and more consolidation in the broadcast area…what low-power FM radio will do is create an important new outlet and spark a whole new outlet for creativity and and new ideas and new music that we don’t often hear on the radio." FCC Chairman Kennard proclaimed after the decision was announced.

TheFCC’s action could create between 1,000 and 3,000 nonprofit grassroots radio stations. The decision was likely influenced by thousands of supportive letters sent to the FCC over the course of the year, what FCC Mass Media Bureau Chief Roy Stewart said was the greatest "kind of support… from ordinary people" that he has seen in his 30 years with the FCC.

Groups like the National Lawyer’s Guild Committee for Democratic Communications had expressed concern that the initial rulemaking would have allowed ownership of microradio stations by large commercial broadcasters. The FCC’s final decision addressed this concern by mandating that low power stations be strictly nonprofit. Stations can’t sell advertising, although they can seek NPR-style underwriting. Only stations under 100W will be permitted, easing concerns that the ruling would only make room for a handful of large stations. To make room for the new micro-stations the FCC eliminated the long-standing third adjacent channel protection, meaning that now microradio stations can operate on a frequency three channels away from an existing station.

The FCC also placed initial ownership restrictions on low power radio, allowing an ownership entity only one station for the first two years and mandating that that entity be headquartered within ten miles of the station. Those restrictions are lifted after two years, allowing for nonlocal ownership and for one entity to own up to ten stations nationwide. However, local owners are given preference if more than one group is vying for a single license within a community, and no party with ties to a media outlet–radio, newspapers, cable, etc.–can own a microradio station.

However, entrenched interests have fought back. The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents established broadcasters and is one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies is behind a bill that would significantly scale back the scope of the FCC’s rules for Low power FM. The "Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 1999," (HR 3439) passed the House by 274 votes to 110.

Thebill was passed into law was a modified version that reflects the"Dingell-Wilson" amendment. The Dingell-Wilson amendment was been presented as a compromise that "saves" low power radio, because it does not ban the service altogether but simply reverts back to the third-channel protection the FCC had lifted. In fact, it cut the service drastically. If the FCC’s plan would allow for between 1,000 and 3,000 new stations nationwide (with approximately 250 in the top sixty markets), the new law allowed for a few hundred, with some estimates as low as 70. Virtually none of these new stations could be in major markets. Needless to say, the National Association of Broadcasters was pleased with the law, while low-power supporters were not.

In February 2002, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit overturned as unconstitutional the part of the Radio Preservation Act that prohibited all former unlicensed broadcasters from applying for low power radio stations.

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Christopher Mitchell

Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He runs MuniNetworks.org as part of ILSR's effort to ensure broadband networks are directly accountable to the communities that depend upon them.