Forget the Web. This revolution's on the airwaves.
SAN FRANCISCO — Jennifer Toomey hopes the riffs of her punk guitar will reach a larger audience this summer in Washington.
In Lakeland, Fla., it's the sweet sounds of the local pastor's sermons that Lynne Breidenbach expects to fall on more ears.
And in Brookland, Ark., the voice of youth could become commonplace in the rural hamlet by year's end.
Behind all these dreams of grass-roots communication is a common technology - and it's not what you might expect.
Move over Internet. It's back to the future time for scores of communities across America now gearing up to launch ultra-small-scale radio stations this year.
And while this won't revolutionize mainstream commercial radio, analysts say it does have something close to revolutionary potential for many small communities that feel drowned out by the increasingly uniform voice of big stations.
Local radio, given its low cost and ready availability, is a particularly valuable community-building tool, say supporters.
"We expect a considerable number" of the new stations, says a spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission, which approved these low-power radio stations in a landmark decision last month. By one FCC estimate, 1,000 new stations could hit the airwaves with 10- or 100-watt signals that reach only a few miles.
The move comes as commercial radio has undergone breathtaking consolidation since passage of the deregulating Telecommunications Act of 1996. The law allows a single radio chain to own more than one station in a single market, and the result has been the purchase of scores of local stations by a handful of chains.
More stations in fewer hands
Late last year, the consolidation trend intensified when Clear Channel Communications, the nation's largest radio-station owner, announced its purchase of the second-largest owner.
Many analysts say America is losing a powerful vehicle for diversity as local radio is gobbled up. FCC chairman William Kennard said in a 1998 speech: "I worry about the consequences if more and more radio stations are consolidated in fewer and fewer hands."
The FCC ruling opening new space on the airwaves for these small-power stations has been one response to that trend.
"Radio programming is less and less local," says Tom Ness, a Detroit publisher of Jam Rag magazine and advocate of low-power radio. "If Berry Gordy was starting the Motown sound today, the Supremes wouldn't get any air play," says Mr. Ness, referring to the group that epitomized the homegrown Motown music of the 1960s.
Local radio "is no longer the community service it once was," says Ms. Breidenbach, a broadcast veteran who hopes to launch a nonprofit low-power station in Lakeland.
"We used to do food drives, blood drives, the local Kiwanis pancake breakfast, but no more. Conglomeration in radio is part of the reason."
The large commercial broadcasters insist they must cater to local tastes to stay in business. Still, licensing of the new low-power stations will undoubtedly provide a new outlet.
Ms. Toomey doesn't intend to launch her own station. But as a guitarist, she's concerned that the commercial music industry provides less and less opportunity for art. "Ninety-five percent of all music in this country never makes it to the commercial airwaves," she says.
Getting a greater diversity of music and information out there is the reason Steve Provizer, director of Citizens' Media Corps in Boston, wants a permit for his 100-watt station, Radio Free Allston.
"The station is a platform for views that are not heard in the media," he says. "We have done outreach to non-English speakers, the elderly, youth, nonprofits."
Indeed, smaller communities sometimes have special concerns. "We have a real need to communicate more than the larger stations are willing to allow," says Russ Oviatt, president of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood Association in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He plans to start a 100-watt station to keep the neighborhood informed on local issues, whether housing, crime, or the arts.
Before the recent FCC action, low-power radio became a sort of guerrilla campaign. Often called "pirate" radio, some broadcasters thumbed their noses at the notion that the government could restrict their speech. Some pirate radio operators broadcast clandestinely from the backs of vans with small transmitters, staying mobile to avoid punishment.
Some elements of "pirate" radio still resist the notion that the FCC can control the airwaves. But most low-power advocates are delighted with the agency's approach.
Broadcasters weigh in
Big stations are not applauding. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is readying a legal appeal of the FCC ruling, saying it was "arbitrary and capricious." It is also encouraging stations to support legislation introduced recently by Rep. Mike Oxley (R) of Ohio to overturn the decision.
The broadcasters wield considerable clout, and the NAB says low-power stations will degrade the clarity of the broadcasts from the larger stations near them on the FM dial. The FCC says they won't.
"I see this as a really great opportunity," says Kevin Mcgaughuy of Brookland, who wants a license for a 10-watt station he will broadcast from the local high school, where he's principal.
He plans to use the station to train his students, helping them learn to write news broadcasts and exercise the organizational skills it takes to run a station.
Right now, Brookland residents listen to radio stations based in Memphis or Little Rock, Ark., says Mr. Mcgaughuy. "There's nothing local for this community."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society