Tell Congress you want Low Power Radio!
October 11, 2000 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Tell Congress you want Low Power Radio! There is a bill before the Senate that would gut the FCC's ability to license low power radio. Click the link to tell your reps that you think S3020, which prohibits LPR, should be voted down. We like free speech here, right? We like having the right to use our own airwaves, right? Click the link, type in your ZIP and spread some legislative love, babies.
posted by RakDaddy (20 comments total)
Hm, I'm not just going to take your word for it. Here's the bill summary at Thomas. There's a pro-LPR backgrounder that indicates how this bill is the culmination of a commercial radio lobbying effort.

On the surface, it's hard to tell what the intent of Congress is here. They seem to be forcing the FCC to run an experiment to determine "reasonable" LPR station-to-station distances vis-a-vis interference with the commercial high-power radio network. Since the FCC was already hot to shut down LPR, this almost seems like it's taking away their power to do so. S.3020, however, does not "prohibit LPR" at least the way I would understand that. The plaintiffs, so to speak, are organizations for the blind and disabled, who believe their pre-existing services would be hurt.

So, it ain't that simple.
posted by dhartung at 10:49 AM on October 11, 2000

Then, here's a question: why is the National Association of Broadcasters so stoked about this bill?

And, while I'm all for a pilot program, I'm not thrilled with Sec.2.a.1.B. Shouldn't the people who have experience with microradio be allowed to broadcast legally at last? And hasn't the FCC already done experiments with station-to-station distances and determined that microradio won't interfere? Doesn't ordering further tests sound like stalling for more time?

Also (and this isn't an attack, dhartung) where did you read about the FCC being hot to shut down LPR? I coulda sworn they were all for it.
posted by RakDaddy at 11:24 AM on October 11, 2000

With wireless broadband around the corner, I wonder if there will be many people with any desire to use LPR in the next few years. Not that it shouldn't be free, mind you.
posted by Doug at 11:33 AM on October 11, 2000

As the former manager of one of the stations mentioned in the Fairchild piece, I can tell you first hand that commercial radio will invariably move to block any power increase that they can argue will harm them. We had a commercial station we had never heard of some 100 miles away from our transmitter intervene against our increase to 250 watts back in the early-1990s. The notion that we were going to interfere with them was absurd, and luckily the folks at the CRTC and the DOC understood this.

While Fairchild has some of his specifics wrong, his point is generally correct: that community radio is a recognized entity in Canada, and that low-power stations generally receive reasonable protection when it comes to other, high-power stations.
posted by tranquileye at 11:55 AM on October 11, 2000

RakDaddy, I'm confused about something: "...having the right to use our own airwaves"? What made them ours? Do we own everything we lay our eyes on?
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:12 PM on October 11, 2000

Who says we don't own the airwaves Steven? Do corporations own that part of the electromagnetic spectrum?

They would if the could, but somehow I think it's all of ours, even though a few corporations control most all the broadcasts in america.
posted by mathowie at 12:21 PM on October 11, 2000

It's not only commercial radio moving against LPFM -- National Public Radio is one of the worst offenders.
posted by sudama at 12:43 PM on October 11, 2000

The FCC has always held that the airwaves are public property. That's been Rule One from the beginning.

Wireless broadband? Isn't that a contradiction?
posted by solistrato at 12:59 PM on October 11, 2000

The airways are a "public good." Didn't we discuss that recently in MeFi? Since radio bandwidth is a limited resource in urban areas, it seems to me that it's only fair to make sure that independent media sources have an opportunity to use them, and LPR is a good balance.
posted by daveadams at 2:00 PM on October 11, 2000

Dan, that article you refer to is very out of date.

In fact, FCC Chairman William Kennard has been leading the charge to authorize Low-Power FM stations in the US.

His principle opposition is the NAB, who are out to protect themselves from any further competition. They have been arm-twisting their surrogates in Congress to kill the bill.

Sadly, National Public Radio joined the NAB against LPFM to protect against true community radio.

NAB and NPR are using Radio Reading Services as a convenient trojan horse to kill any attempt at authorizing LPFM. As the link above notes, the FCC has gone out of their way to ensure that these services are FULLY protected from interference from LPFM stations, by (a) agreeing not to assign any LPFM stations on channels next to these services and (b) expediting the review of any possible interference issues that may arise.

To quote Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project, the bill before Congress is "a bill to kill Low Power FM."

Full Disclosure: I work for the FCC.
posted by kevincmurphy at 2:26 PM on October 11, 2000

The airwaves are indeed public property. Which is why it's odd that the government should give valuable spectrum space away (yep, entirely for free) to the networks.

Of what do I speak?

Well, if you look over the 1996 Telecommunications act, you'll see that it gives away high frequency bands to major networks. All in an effort to promote the development of HDTV broadcasts (which we were supposed to have a while ago).

The tradeoff, of course, is that the networks are supposed to provide programming that serves the public interest. Generally, this doesn't happen.

Further, the 1996 act recinded a number of restrictions regarding station ownership. As a result, a handful of companies own virtually every major radio station across the country.

How could such a bill be passed you ask?

Alas, well meaning dissenters went after the Red Herring specially designed for them - that bit about censoring pornographic content on the web.

So, we're left with a media landscape devoid of any local and community programming. The kind of programming that is really relevant to peoples lives.

Established radio stations (including NPR) are quite happy with this. After all, if people could get news and information from a source within their own communitites, why would they tune into a watered down commercial broadcast? To protect themselves, they hack out all sorts of arguments about 'interference' and 'spectrum crowding'.

So what're we gonna do about it?

I was at the Ralph Nader rally here in Chicago last night, and he has an excellent idea:

He proposed charging the networks for the use of OUR airwaves, and then using that money to promote the development of community radio, television, and cable stations. Ensuring a "community outlet for news and creative programming for everyone".

Vote for Ralph!!

But write a note to your Senator too . . .
posted by aladfar at 2:39 PM on October 11, 2000

As a quick addendum, Kevin speaks the truth - the FCC are the good guys here. It's the nasty folks at NAB who are really on the dark side.
posted by aladfar at 2:42 PM on October 11, 2000

Thanks for the backup, aladfar.

Just so you know, though, the FCC isn't happy about the broadcaster spectrum giveaway either. In fact, in a speech given yesterday, Chairman Kennard questioned broadcasters' recent commitment to the public interest and proposed a "spectrum-squatter's fee" on broadcasters who don't hasten their transition to DTV and give back the analog spectrum.

As for voting for Ralph, I heartily concur.
posted by kevincmurphy at 2:54 PM on October 11, 2000

Matt, the spectrum is being treated as "public property", but that doesn't mean that individuals among the public have any direct right to it.

Take as an example the interstate highway system. It's also public property; but that doesn't mean that I can go out there in the middle of the night and build a road-block across I-5 by exercising "my property rights" to that small section of the thing. I as an individual have no property rights to I-5.

"Owned by all of us" doesn't mean "owned by each of us individually", and indeed it cannot in any case of a limited resource. In the case of spectrum, it has to be controlled because if two or more people try to use the same spectrum at the same time at the same place then both will fail.

Which is why the FCC was set up in the first place; to try to bring order to the allocation of spectrum, to make sure that, although all of the spectrum collectively "belongs to all of us" that individual pieces of it were licensed to individual users -- and that those licenses were exclusive and no-one else had the right to use those parts. Otherwise it becomes useless.

Rakdaddy's rhetoric suggested that we as individuals or groups have the right to use the spectrum. In fact, we don't, any more than I have a right to physically change I-5. We have the privilege of petitioning the FCC for a license to be granted exclusive use of some part of the spectrum in some geographical area. That's not the same. We don't have a right to demand such a license; and we've never had any such right.

But that's how it must work, for any other way leads to chaos.

Now it's true that large portions of spectrum have been licensed to corporations. But in fact they don't "own" it; they simply have been granted the privilege of using it, and that privilege can be rescinded. And it has been rescinded many times, for various reasons. For instance, the part of the spectrum used for 800 MHz Cellular used to be assigned to TV channels. Those broadcasters using channels in that range lost their licenses and the FCC cleared out that section of spectrum to make room for the original AMPS cellular system.

None of those licenses are eternal. All must be renewed periodically (for TV it's every two years) and the FCC doesn't have to renew your license if they have a reason not to.

Which brings us back to LPR: "we" don't own that spectrum in the sense that RakDaddy implies that we do; we don't have a right to demand access to it.

That's why I asked why he thought we owned that spectrum. It depends a great deal on which "we" you're talking about, and from his context, his "we" do not actually have a right to use that spectrum, and his "we" don't own the airwaves, either, because his "we" is a subset of the populace.

No individual or small group or corporation legally owns any part of the spectrum in the sense of having an eternal exclusive ability to use it without interference from anyone else. "We" own the spectrum only if you consider "we" to be every living individual collectively in the US (applying to spectrum use within the boundaries of the US). But no "we", which is more restrictive than that, have any right whatever to it.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 3:42 PM on October 11, 2000

>"we don't have a right to demand access to it . . . "

But corporate media giants have a right to use those public airwaves, without regard to public interest, and without providing access to community voices.

Steven, we're obligated to demand access to the airwaves that we as a people own. We have every right to demand programs that address the needs of our communities.

When a single corporation owns multiple stations in 'markets' across the country, community voices and access to the airwaves are effectively squelched.

Should you and I decided to start our own station in an attempt to counteract this trend, we'd find it all but impossible. The amount of money required to purchase a license from an existing station would (unless you're really wealthy) most certainly prevent us from doing so.

I'm trying really hard to keep this civil Steven, I find your opinion on this matter to be ill conceived and a bit thick headed.

I'll just leave it at that . . .

posted by aladfar at 6:30 PM on October 11, 2000

Aladfar, I think the difference is that you're talking as an idealist with a agenda and I'm talking as an person who knows the law.

I'm not talking about how things "ought to be" but how things are under current law.

Yes, you have every right to demand programs that etc. The broadcasting companies have every right to ignore your demands. They don't have any obligation to give you what you want, and they never did.

No company ever has an obligation to provide to you exactly what you want to buy.

Every two years, when they go to the FCC to get their license renewed, the broadcasters have to prove that they've made an effort to serve the public good. You can at that time go to the FCC and try to claim otherwise. If you can make a convincing case, the FCC won't renew their license (or may take lesser actions). But the FCC takes a lot of convincing, because it's "the public", not "a specific part of the public" that the broadcaster has to serve. There's always going to be someone who feels neglected.

"Serving the public good" is a rather nebulous concept, and it doesn't mean that they've satisfied everyone in their audience (which is probably impossible). The mere fact that you've demanded a specific program and didn't get it doesn't mean that the station didn't serve the public good.

The media giants have a right to use the public airwaves, but you're incorrect when you say that they can disregard the public interest. However, you are correct that they don't have to provide access to "community voices". They don't have to let any and every nutcase who wants on the air to use their facilities. In fact, they don't have to let anyone at all use their facilities, in as much as there are other ways for them to serve the public interest which are just as satisfactory to the FCC.

I'm always a little suspicious of phrases like "community voices", by the way; that could be interpreted as the KKK or similar groups just as much as what you're thinking of. Do you want to see a weekly "Aryan Hour" on your local TV station? Or a documentary series on how the Holocaust didn't really happen and was all a fabrication of the International Jewish Conspiracy? Those guys are just as much "community voices" as you are.

The broadcsting companies have to serve the public good, but that doesn't mean they have to satisfy every single part of the public they serve. That's the way the FCC interprets the law.

I don't see why you're so worried about this.

It's not as if this is the only way to reach people. If you have some sort of message you feel you need to get out, there are a lot of other ways of doing it.

By the way and keeping it civil, aladfar, I couldn't care less what you think of my opinion.

posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:10 PM on October 11, 2000

Oh, by the way: I happen to think that LPR is a good idea.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:16 PM on October 11, 2000

And you make your opinions well known here on MeFi . . .

I've worked in radio since 1992, was employed by NPR for 2 years, was general manager for my college radio station, and have renewed a broadcast license with the FCC. I've climbed towers 500 feet above the ground to replace an antenna, and I've spent countless hours on the air.

I'm well aware of current law.

Media has been ripped away from those who own the means of transmission. It is, quite simply, unfair.

Of course, a single station can't possibly satisfy the needs of every community. This is why LPFM is absolutely essential.

Do I support organizations like the KKK having access to the airwaves? Hell yes. While I disagree with everything they stand for, the KKK and organizations like them have just as much of a right to broadcast their opinions as you and I do.

For one who considers LPR a 'good idea' you've some backward notions about it.
posted by aladfar at 8:48 PM on October 11, 2000

Some interesting details I dug up while doing a research paper on pirate radio in the U.S. last fall:

Radio was first intended to be a tool of the military. After the end of World War I, one private firm, Radio Corporation of America (RCA), controlled all radio technology. At this time, RCA recognized the huge commercial potential of radio and encouraged people to set up amateur stations to sell RCA radio receivers, leading to the AM boom of the ’20s. The RCA then took a position against amateur radio, when it realized the potential profits resulting from the sales of advertising time on the air. The RCA maintained, “a limited group of ‘superpower’ stations is all [this country] needs.” The Radio Act of 1927 instituted licensing of the broadcast spectrum, interpreting the airwaves as the property of the United States government. Stations were licensed based on the strength of their radio signal, unfairly penalizing the smaller, poorer stations that could not afford to buy expensive transmitters required for stronger signals. The broadcast spectrum was seen as a limited resource, and the official line was that “room [does not exist] in the broadcast band for every school of thought – religious, political, social, or economic.”

Nationwide, the estimate of operating LPFM stations varies between 500 and 1,000. (note: this might be out of date by now). NAB argues that the illegal use of the airwaves interferes with other FM signals. Officially, the FCC’s concern is that unlicensed broadcasting interferes with both licensed radio stations and Federal Aviation Administration air-traffic-control signals, causing airplanes to crash.

As an organizing tool, radio can communicate much more efficiently than newspapers or magazines can, especially to illiterate individuals; a few hundred dollars can buy a transmitting kit, while 10 dollars can buy a small radio receiver. On average, there is one television for every 6.7 people in the world, while there is one radio for every three people.

Before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, a single company could own up to two AM and two FM radio stations in a given market, but now the same corporation can own up to eight radio stations in a single city; national restrictions on total ownership of radio stations were eliminated altogether. In addition, the emphasis on advertising revenue has increased. Stations can increase the number of ads they play each hour without significant consequences, because the same company often owns the competing stations. The industry standard for commercials on radio stations has increased from 8 minutes to 12 minutes an hour; the amount of increased ad hours per year has increased by 500 hours.
posted by prettyliar at 9:04 PM on October 11, 2000

Salon explores the issue of LPFM.
posted by kevincmurphy at 3:15 PM on October 16, 2000

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