Ever stop to think about why the FM dial tunes to a homogenous parade of top 40, country, urban and rock stations, with - if you're lucky - a National Public Radio or college station thrown in?
The Federal Communications Commission thinks FM radio can offer more. It has proposed low-power community stations that could broadcast local and alternative programming - but the initiative is being hotly contested by commercial broadcasters and their allies in Congress.
"With the same energy it takes to light your table lamp, the new 10- or 100-watt low-power FM service will create radio for the people," FCC Chairman William Kennard said in a recent column in The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Illegal broadcasters, known as pirates or microbroadcasters, have long alleged that the old licensing system - which requires 100 watts and several hundred thousand dollars in start-up costs - supports commercial interests and denies an outlet for nonmainstream programming.
Last January, in response to increasing consolidation of radio station ownership and decreasing diversity of programming, the FCC proposed a service that would provide low-power FM (LPFM) licenses to community groups.
"The FCC realized, `Our initial mandate is to protect the airwaves in the public interest,'" said Amanda Huron, LPFM activist and UNC graduate student. "And the fact that our country has any commercial broadcasters really undermines that."
The FCC, which has traditionally allied with commercial broadcasters and ignored microbroadcasters' concerns, switched sides with LPFM. Huron attributes the turnaround to Kennard, the FCC's first black chairman. "(The FCC has) high hopes for the way this could open up the airwaves for regular people," she said.
The LPFM service will provide new, noncommercial stations with a 1- to 3 1/2-mile radius, licensed to educational organizations and intended to encourage diversity and local ownership. Current licensees and groups with interests in other media are not eligible.
More than 1,200 applications have already been received, but the LPFM initiative faces an 11th-hour battle in Washington as commercial broadcasters and some members of Congress try to enact legislation that would limit its scope.
"The only group siding against the establishment of low-power FM is big radio, which in a textbook case of protectionism is trying to use the government to smother potential competition," Kennard's column said.
The FCC regulates broadcasting to prevent interference on the airwaves and with other spectrum-based services, especially those used in air travel.
It stopped granting low-power licenses to noncommercial FM stations in 1978, leaving radio dominated by commercial stations. Then, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 relaxed limits on the number of stations one entity can own, resulting in consolidation of station ownership.
"As consolidation in the broadcast industry closes the doors of opportunity for new entrants, we must find ways to use the broadcast spectrum more efficiently so that we can bring more voices to the airwaves," Kennard said in a 1999 statement.
People like Stephen Dunifer, who founded the Free Radio movement in Berkeley, Calif., in 1993, responded to commercial control of radio with illegal stations and a mission to "liberate the airwaves and break the corporate broadcast media's stranglehold on the free flow of news, information, ideas and cultural and artistic creativity."
Huron says LPFM will provide opportunities that the illegal microbroadcasting Dunifer advocates can't.
"It makes microbroadcasting accessible to a wider range of people in the community," she said. "There are a lot of people who are not going to get involved with a pirate radio station. It's a risk that they're not willing to take."
That greater accessibility is what makes LPFM an important opportunity, Huron said. "The most important thing about low-power radio is how it can be used as a community-building experience," she said. "It's not just what comes out over the airwaves, it's what goes into the process of putting it together."
Broadcasters Lash Out Against LPFM
Commercial broadcasters have united in opposition to LPFM, saying studies indicate that LPFM stations will cause unacceptable interference. NPR and reading services for the blind have raised concerns about interference as well.
"Every legitimate scientific study validates that additional interference will result from LPFM," said Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, upon the FCC's proposal. "The FCC has chosen advancement of social engineering over spectrum integrity."
Many also oppose LPFM on the premise that it legalizes pirate radio. The FCC will award licenses to former pirates if they ceased operation when directed, or voluntarily before March 1999.
Members of Congress have joined the NAB in its opposition. The House and Senate have both passed Sen. Michael Oxley's Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, which is intended to scale back the LPFM initiative.
Oxley's act requires more space between - and thus fewer - stations, further testing for interference and studies of the impact LPFM would have on broadcasters and listeners. The act was attached as a rider to a Senate appropriations bill in October; Congress adjourned for elections without resolving the bill's status.
LPFM advocates say that broadcasters' concerns are unfounded. "The broadcasters had these really lame arguments that got stripped away, and now all they're left with is crying chicken little," said Michael Bracy, executive director of the Low-Power Radio Coalition. "Obviously, some members of Congress bought that argument hook, line and sinker."
Oxley maintained in a statement that "We are seeking to add choices for the radio listener, not subtract them. If the FCC proceeds at its current scale and pace, it's likely that the quality of radio signals will be damaged all across the country."
But Huron calls the allegations of interference "totally false." "They're saying that these new low-power stations - 10 to 100 watts - are going to interfere, when they've already got 10,000-watt stations that close to each other?"
Dennis Wharton, senior vice president of communications for the NAB, upholds its position: "Why is it that NPR, the International Association of the Blind, the radio reading services for the blind and other groups are expressing the same interference concerns?"
"The answer is, this is a real issue. It's not fantasy interference we're talking about. It threatens the very viability of radio broadcasting," he said.
Some microbroadcasters have alleged that commercial broadcasters are merely trying to protect their financial interests in opposing LPFM, an idea that Wharton calls "a ridiculous assertion."
"By very definition, these would be noncommercial stations. They would not be a competitive threat in that way."
But Kennard said in his column that "This attempt to kill low-power FM is not about ideology; it's about money," calling the NAB's interference concerns a "smoke screen" for its financial interests.
`A Few Crumbs Off the Table'
Wharton says that the NAB is not opposed to LPFM - that "in fact, the FCC could go ahead and license hundreds of LPFM stations if the legislation attached to the appropriations bill goes forward." True, but not nearly enough to satisfy LPFM advocates like Bracy.
Even as the FCC originally proposed LPFM, the requirements for distance between stations would prevent licensing of LPFM stations in metropolitan areas.
"The reality is we're not entirely happy with what the FCC did either. What the FCC did was a compromise," Bracy said. "They came up with a very conservative plan that still doesn't get low-power FM into urban areas."
The FCC's compromise, which still leaves most of the FM dial in the hands of corporate entities, is unacceptable to those like Dunifer. He proposes something more radical than LPFM: the expansion of the FM dial downward past 88, allowing for more stations. "We're just going to keep putting up stations until they give us something reasonable," he said. "The LPFM ruling is not reasonable. It's just a few crumbs off the table."
When Congress reconvenes Nov. 14, President Clinton can sign or veto the appropriations bill with the anti-LPFM rider. He has indicated that LPFM is one reason he will likely veto the bill, Bracy said. And now that Election Day has passed, Bracy predicted, the NAB will have less lobbying influence.
"We continue to be very optimistic both that the administration is going to hold firm and congressional leaders are going to come to their senses after the election," he said.
If LPFM survives Congress, groups from North Carolina will be allowed to apply for licensing in May 2001.