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Low-Power Radio: The Revolution Will Be Broadcast PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 01 May 2001 18:00
Publisher’s Note: We picked up this story from a fellow independent paper, the San Antonio Current. This is critical information in the new and emerging economies of data, access and information. In addition, the story is particularly germane to the Quad Cities as it focuses a great deal on Clear Channel Communications, headquartered in San Antonio. CCC happens to own what is referred to as the Quad Cities Radio Group made up of KUUL-FM, KMXG-FM, KCQQ-FM, WLLR-FM, WLLR-AM and WOC-AM here in Davenport. The QC Radio Group is the current leader in the duopoly race for market share in the commercial radio market that continues to dumb down the Quad Cities airwaves month after month, Arbitron book after Arbitron book. Clear Channel Communications paid $85 million for the Quad Cities based group of radio stations. Clear Channel is a global leader in the out-of-home advertising industry with radio and television stations and outdoor displays in 40 countries around the world. Including announced transactions, Clear Channel operates over 900 radio and 19 television stations in the United States and has equity in over 240 radio stations internationally. Clear Channel also operates more than 700,000 outdoor advertising displays, including billboards, street furniture and transit panels across the world. The company is headquartered in San Antonio, Texas. Their Web site is (http://www.clearchannel.com).

Amy Kwasnicki could tell you about the time she walked around Seattle in the middle of the World Trade Organization protest with a radio station in her suitcase and an umbrella in her hand, transmitting discontent over the airwaves. She can illustrate, in fluid hand movements, the time she blew out her fancy new transmitter while trying to use a fire escape as a makeshift radio tower. She could tell you how Federal Communications Commission (FCC) thugs, after they knocked down her door and confiscated her pirate radio station, were polite enough to remove every one of her CDs from a 500-disc changer before carting it away. She could tell you all that and more.

But if you had the time, and she, the inclination, Kwasnicki could tell you something infinitely more important. She could explain how you could set up your very own radio station legally, and broadcast your community’s news, music, poetry, stories, ideas, hopes, and dreams. She can tell you how to start a revolution in your town.

Surprisingly, this revolution has always existed. At least by the provisions of FCC law, the idea that radio airwaves belong to the public is not “revolutionary” at all. According to Title 47 of the United States Code, Section 301, licenses for operation of a radio station shall be granted only to those who pledge to serve the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” The state of radio as a profit-making enterprise, devoted to the capitalist potential of mass media, is an outgrowth of the medium, but not inherent to it. It has taken the recent, radical resurgence in pirate radio to remind us of this.

Pete triDish, who, along with Kwasnicki, has formed the Prometheus Radio Project, talks about his pirate past in passionate terms. “Our goal was to change the minds of the decision-makers,” he says. “Even as they started to bust the pirate radio stations, they started to realize that the policies that they were enforcing were not fair, and that they were not really constitutionally defensible as they stood. In fact, it was just far too difficult for community radio stations to get access to frequencies, and far too easy for corporations. And so they announced that they were going to seriously consider changing the rules. After the station I worked on, Radio Mutiny, was confiscated, [we] launched the Prometheus Radio Project, which wanted to seriously dialogue with the FCC about how this change could come about.” The Prometheus Radio Project (along with other low-power FM, or LPFM, advocates) proved LPFM could be implemented without undue interference to established stations. They filed comments with the FCC regarding the technical minutiae of future legislation, and helped to ensure that the licensing process for LPFM operators was fair and accessible. Last year, the FCC began to grant licenses to community broadcasters, and the revolution was on.

Prometheus Comes Calling

When the Prometheus Radio Project rolls through a town, it often comes in the form of Kwasnicki, a feminist radical in torn, purple overalls and smart wire frames, who drives a beat-up Volvo station wagon. Kwasnicki (who in the context of Prometheus is known as Joan Dark) is often on tour to promote recent legislative changes within the FCC that allow the establishment of low-power FM community radio stations. Hers is a large undertaking, and, with the help of Pete triDish – who often tours himself – they have already made some headway. Over 1,800 applications for LPFM licenses have crossed the FCC’s desk. The first low-power FM station to be licensed by the FCC under last year’s legislation will open in Opelousas, Louisiana. Prometheus is planning an LPFM “barn-raising” for the event.

A recent seminar given by Prometheus drew an interesting group: representatives of a Benedectine convent sat next to Green Party organizers, who flanked members of the local media, and animal-rights activists, who stole glances at the baseball-capped head of a lone NRA devotee. Earlier in the day, Kwasnicki had visited with members of an anti-domestic violence group, and had stopped by the offices of an artists’ collective. All had expressed interest in establishing a local station.

Kwasnicki launched into stories about her history as a pirate, then covered the legal and technical aspects of setting up an LPFM station. With as little as $5,000, she told the crowd, one could set up a small, 100 mega-watt affair, capable of broadcasting within a radius of about six miles. All one had to do is find an available frequency, jump through a few FCC hoops (including a relatively painless application process), and set up the equipment.

Simple, right?

Not quite. The radio markets in most cities are relatively tight. Most of the available frequencies are already used by an unpalatable assemblage of commercial and public radio stations in the area. Add the technical restrictions that Congress slapped on to the legislation through the lobbying efforts of the National Association of Broadcasters (with the appalling aid of National Public Radio), and the number of available frequencies in many areas drops to perhaps one or two. When Kwasnicki said this, the mood in the room quickly changed from like-minded civility to uncomfortable competitiveness. Some people glanced around the room; others shifted in their chairs. When Kwasnicki later explained how, through the use of an FCC loophole, the partnership of many groups could actually increase the chances of an operating license being granted, the mood was once again jovial – but the NRA member was the odd man out.

In the Land of Giants

Prometheus was the Greek deity who stole fire from Mt. Olympus in order to share it with humans. He was grotesquely punished by the gods for his crime: An eagle appeared each day to feast on his liver. This allegory is poignant, and while low-power FM stations might not constitute a threat to giants such as media goliath Clear Channel (whose flagship station, WOAI, broadcasts with 50,000 mega-watts, making it possible for listeners from Phoenix to Chicago to tune in), but they at least return a small portion of the airwaves to the public that radio was designed to serve. Radio access is, in a sense, the fire of the gods ... and the gods are bent on political revenge.

Last year, a powerful commercial radio lobby – the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) – succeeded in stalling the proposed roll-out of 2,000 LPFM stations. The NAB cited technical concerns as its official reason for opposing the FCC legislation, and claimed that new LPFM operators could wander from their allotted frequencies and bleed into commercial programming.

The NAB’s opposition is understandable, if not honorable: It’s a classic case of large corporate lobbies going after new competition from public entities. They just can’t understand the idea that people would want to undertake a time-consuming and costly enterprise unless a profit was involved. In addition, FCC regulations would grant LPFM licenses for frequencies across the band, and would therefore allow LPFM to compete for the ears of listeners flipping through the commercial spectrum (which typically runs from 92-108Mhz; noncommercial stations such as National Public Radio (NPR) and most college radio stations are granted frequencies in the 88-92Mhz range).

National Public Radio, as a member of the NAB, joined the commercial radio conglomerates in opposing LPFM. The technical concerns they cited had to do with the proximity on the dial of new LPFM stations to the established public and commercial stations.

NPR argued that an LPFM broadcasting on 89.3 would pose too great a threat to an NPR signal at 89.1, which is often less compressed than its commercial counterparts. But technical concerns, valid or not, cannot account for the venom NPR has for LPFM. Even NPR, in the midst of their attack, has admitted that LPFM has an important role to play.

“Public radio stations do a good job in many places in providing local news, information and cultural programs,” wrote Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, NPR’s ombudsman, in an online column last year. So why the opposition? Perhaps because NPR, more than large, impersonal, commercial radio, will compete more directly with future LPFM stations. You can even detect a bit of envy in Dvorkin’s words: “While it has gained a following, public radio has lost some of its credibility as a vehicle for those who want their radio to have a more populist – even underground – sound.”

In response to the NPR attack, the Prometheus Radio Project and other pro-LPFM organizations protested outside NPR’s offices in San Francisco, and began an “Un-pledge to NPR” campaign in which they tried to convince NPR donors to renege on their financial commitments.

While the FCC upheld the decision of Congress, it maintained that its engineers had found that LPFM stations posed no threat if broadcast from beyond a third adjacency. In laymen’s terms, while LPFMs were not allowed to use 89.3 as a frequency if a station is established at 89.1, they could use 89.9 (four steps up), which would put them beyond the third adjacency. Unfortunately, this greatly limits the number of available frequencies for LPFMs, but the FCC legislation that allowed for community radio is still in effect, having survived a considerable blow. In addition, John McCain (R-AZ) has introduced a new bill that would remedy some of the damage, removing the language in last year’s bill that makes LPFM operators vulnerable to expensive, time-consuming, and frivolous lawsuits by commercial radio operators.

LPFM advocates, while excited about the survival of the FCC legislation, realize that they have gained very little ground. Pete triDish says, “When you consider just how much the corporations really have, [LPFM is] really very small. And the truth of the matter is, we won in the sense that they established that it’s a good idea for community radio stations to exist, but we were sort of wedged in there in only the most obsequious way possible.”

Corporations are noncommittal about the future of LPFM. “We’re kind of indifferent,” says Randy Palmer, vice-president of investor relations at Clear Channel Communications, Inc. “Until we see a full roll-out of low-power FM, it’s hard to form a real opinion.”

Clear Channel is a major member of the NAB, and has played an intrinsic role in the anti-LPFM lobby. They control nearly 1,200 radio stations in this country. As Palmer says, “We cross the airwaves in all 50 states.”

Locals Only

These McStations, as one might call them, are a poor alternative to community-based, locally produced radio stations. Most of their programming, in fact, is not done at a station at all. Palmer explains it this way: “We have, in many instances, a central database from which we can feed network programming across a number of our stations.”

And the cost of setting up one of their clone stations? “The bare minimum, in the smallest of our markets, is maybe $1.5 million,” Palmer said. The $5,000 price tag of an LPFM station seems almost negligible in comparison. Yet he believes communities play a large role in their success. “A big part of our overall theme at Clear Channel is to give back to communities, to work within the communities, and you will usually see it as a big part of our annual reports, year after year.” Reviewing their annual reports, one is impressed less with how much they have given to communities than the amount they have taken away from them. Last year, Clear Channel recorded profits of $1.7 billion, with net revenues a mind-boggling $6.9 billion. And as for a network of almost 1,200 stations in all markets, based under a whirring corporate infrastructure: Can we really expect the kind of localized, civic programming that benefits the listener, rather than the advertiser?

“It’s one of those classic examples of market failure,” says Pete triDish. “Because the customer is no longer the listener, but the advertiser, it doesn’t pay to make quality, local content. What makes the most money is basically what serves the public interest least. That’s what we’ve ended up with.”

“I don’t know if that’s really true,” counters Palmer. “I would say that is true in the big markets – the top 30 or 50 markets – but you know, if I drilled down into Clear Channel radio stations, we serve a lot of small to mid-sized cities as well. I would agree with you that in the LAs and the New Yorks of the world, that the radio does feed more to the advertisers and that’s what it’s really all about: the ratings and the advertisers.

“The fact of the matter is, most large radio stations such as Clear Channel, Viacom, Cox Radio, whoever you want to name, are working toward providing a profit for their shareholders,” admits Palmer. LPFM “is a totally different venue. I think the intent of the FCC was to provide these stations for community service, to serve as a forum for discussions within the local community. I think that if that’s the case, it’s probably going to serve as a good resource for a number of people.”

Pete triDish admits that LPFM will never pull the rug out from beneath the corporations. “We’re talking about a hundred watts, where your normal commercial radio station is broadcasting between 20,000 and 50,000 watts,” he says. “But you’d be surprised what a hundred watts can do.”

Low-power FM is an opportunity that cannot be allowed to slip away. Says Pete triDish: “By fighting very, very hard, we opened the door a crack. Now we need people to come forward and open the door all the way.” Hear, hear.

For more information about low-power radio, visit the Prometheus Web site at (http://www.prometheus.tao.ca).

This story originally appeared in the
San Antonio Current.
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