News that the Federal Communications Commission has put the issue of "microbroadcasting" on its agenda for the coming year is being greeted with both hope and wariness by free speech advocates.
The FCC currently prohibits most radio stations from broadcasting with less than 100 watts of power. Critics of that policy contend that advances in technology have freed up more space on the airwaves, and that low-powered broadcasters providing community programming should be allowed to fill the void. (See "Making waves," MT, May 13-19, 1998.)
Recognizing the need for an alternative to the homogeneous fare usually provided by large media conglomerates that continue to consolidate, FCC Chairman William Kennard has put the issue of opening "low-power radio frequencies for local use" on the commission’s 1999 agenda.
In a speech last year, Kennard explained the need by saying, "As I have traveled around the country, I talk to many, many people who want to use the airwaves to speak to their communities — churches, community groups, universities, small businesses, minority groups. There is a tremendous need for us to find ways to use the broadcast spectrum more efficiently so that we can bring more voices to the airwaves. We are seriously evaluating proposals for a new microradio service."
But advancing microradio was but one of more than 30 items highlighted by Kennard. That, and the intense opposition from the politically powerful National Association of Broadcasters, has advocates looking for ways to turn up the pressure.
"Members of Congress and the other FCC commissioners must hear from listeners who are not well served by the current radio offerings, and from speakers who cannot get on the air," says Cheryl Leanza, a staff attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based Media Access Project.
Others are continuing to press their case in court. Detroit attorney Patrick Edwards, who represents several Michigan microbroadcasters, says he is encouraged by Kennard’s remarks but cannot depend upon the FCC to do the right thing.
"If the regulations change, that’s great," says Edwards. "But we can’t rely on that. We’re going to continue fighting this battle in court."
Among Edwards’ clients is Christian Radio Musical, a 90-watt Pontiac station at 106.3 FM that concentrates on community issues — including a Sunday night program hosted by the Pontiac Police Department. The station was fined $5,000 for operating without a license, but remains on the air while that fine is being appealed.
For more information about the issue contact the Media Access Project at 202-232-4300 or visit the Civil Rights Forum on Communications Policy Web site. Also, see related story, "Making waves: Pontiac minister is on the front line of the microradio air war."