Micro Power Radio Under Attack

The struggle to create a national micro powered FM community radio system in the United States is still too close to call, with corporate efforts underway in Congress to cancel the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) recent “legalization” of micro radio even while the FCC accepts the first applications for new micro powered stations. Urgent action is needed to fight this latest challenge to micro radio and save the FCC’s new legalization rules, even though evidence is mounting that the FCC’s new rules are seriously flawed because they don’t permit as many new stations as are technically possible.

In January, after years of radio civil disobedience by hundreds of micropowered “pirate” free radio stations nationwide, the FCC announced it would accept applications for legal Low Power FM radio stations (LPFM) operating at 100 watts or less with a range of 5 miles. The new LPFM stations are designed to provide an alternative to the largely corporate dominated radio dial. LPFM stations can be set up for as little as $1,000 and under FCC rules only non-profit associations will be able to apply for the stations. LPFM, if it goes forward, could serve as a significant “voice for the voiceless”-allowing local communities, activists, non-corporate musicians and regular people access to the airwaves.

The corporate radio industry, organized as the National Broadcasters Association (NAB), has always opposed cheap, community access to the radio dial. Given the corporate monoculture on the radio dial, with just a few “formats” replicated endlessly across the country, and with ever increasing corporate concentration of stations, the NAB has a lot to fear. Community radio, which would be relevant to local communities, innovative, and able to operate outside of narrow “formats”, is likely to draw listeners away from commercial broadcasts.

The NAB fiercely opposed the pioneering free radio stations that forced the FCC to legalize micro radio, pressuring the FCC to shut stations down by force. When the FCC proposed legalizing micro radio, the NAB spent thousands on biased technical studies to show that any new stations would cause interference. And now that the FCC has approved rules “legalizing” micro radio, which were passed after a year of study and after the FCC solicited and received thousands of comments from interested citizens, the NAB is again trying to kill micro radio, this time using big money and political influence.

On April 13, the House of Representatives passed the so-called “Oxley” Bill, which is designed to prevent the FCC from going ahead with its “legalization” of micro radio. The legislation, essentially written by the NAB, is a corporate attempt to go around the democratic process that, astonishingly, caused the FCC to “legalize” micro radio against all odds. There is no evidence that there was any public outcry demanding passage of the Oxley Bill-its of interest to corporate lobbyists, plain and simple. The NAB has a powerful lobbying apparatus on Capitol Hill, and corporate radio gives millions of dollars to Congressional candidates to ensure influence. Passage of the Oxley Bill is a textbook example of politics as usual-even where citizen organizations get reforms, their efforts can easily be vetoed by wealthy corporate interests.

According to the NAB, the Oxley Bill was intended to protect the radio dial from “interference” the NAB claims micro radio will cause. Their claims, disproved by the FCC’s own careful technical studies, were even further discredited when the NAB presented a falsified recording of “how the radio might sound if LPFM went ahead” before a Congressional hearing on LPFM. The tape was merely two voices mixed together. Interference is characterized by scratchiness and one signal being unintelligible, since FM receivers only accept one signal at a time. In response to the falsified tape, the FCC laboratories produced their own tape, which showed that under FCC rules, there would be no perceptible difference.

A Senate version of the Oxley Bill, SB 2068, is currently pending in the Senate. As Slingshot goes to press, it isn’t looking very good for the FCC’s legalization of micro radio. Only 11 Senators have gone on record opposing SB 2068, and micro radio advocates are strongly encouraging folks to write their Senators and urge them to vote no on SB 2068. (See end of article.)

It is ironic that the NAB is so intent on killing the new FCC licensing rules, because the FCC rules offer so little potential to micro broadcasters. When the FCC announced that California was in the first group of states where people could apply for LPFM licenses, activists commissioned an engineering study to determine where people could locate an LPFM station in the East Bay and San Francisco. The report came back with bad news: under the FCC rules, there was no license available in either area. The closest opportunity for a station was in Santa Cruz 90 miles to the south, Santa Rosa 60 miles to the north, and Stockton 80 miles east.

The FCC, hoping to head off exactly the type of NAB challenge now underway, enacted extremely conservative technical standards for LPFM. Under the rules, LPFM stations don’t have to protect other radio stations on the “3rd adjacent” channel, contrary to FCC rules for higher power stations, but they still have to protect other stations on the “2nd adjacent” channel. Or example, if there is a full powered station on 104.5 FM, the first adjacent channel is 104.3, the second adjacent channel is 104.1 and the third adjacent channel is 103.9.

The FCC decision to prohibit stations on the 2nd adjacent channel flies in the face of their own technical studies, as well as reality-there are hundreds of stations which were “grandfathered” in and are operating on 2nd adjacent channels with no noticeable interference. This restriction was clearly an FCC attempt to appease the NAB by prohibiting opportunities for “too many” micro stations, especially I urban areas. The real world result of the restriction is now obvious: there are no potential stations in the inner Bay Area. If micro radio advocates are able to save the FCC rules from NAB/Congressional extermination, the next step will be to pressure the FCC to expand the LPFM rules to permit stations to operate on the 2nd adjacent channel. The first task is saving the embattled, flawed rules.

What You Can Do

In response to the NAB attacks on micro radio, activists at the May 27 “War Council” adopted a five point program of action against the National Association of Broadcasters. Activists hope to shut down the NAB national convention which will take place in San Francisco September 20-23. Micro radio activists plan to target major advertisers on pro-NAB stations in communities across the country. In the Bay Area, KOIT, and the chairman of its parent company, Bruce Reese, are main targets. KOIT’s largest advertiser, Albertsons, is being asked to withdraw its advertising on KOIT. The War Council also called for the establishment of more micro radio stations as well as outreach and public education campaigns about potential LPFM.

People in the 40 states yet to have a chance to apply for LPFM license are strongly encouraged to immediately contact the National Lawyers Guild Committee on Democratic Communications, who can provide assistance in applying for a station. Based on experience gained in California and other states, it is evident that organizing an application has to begin early in order to be successful. Contact them at 448 Capp Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, 415 522-9814, www.nlgdc.org.

Finally, as distasteful as it can be, now is the time to write your Senator and request that they oppose SB 2068.

Let a thousand transmitters bloom!