Hometown Radio

It's an ironic twist when a radio network with "public" in its name tries to stop the creation of radio stations that would also serve the public.

Last year, National Public Radio (NPR), along with the National Association of Broadcasters, successfully convinced Congress to block a federal proposal to let schools and community groups operate low-power radio stations that would send out short-distance signals in the unused portions of the FM spectrum. The two groups contend these added signals would potentially interfere with their broadcasts.

But Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) has reintroduced a low-power radio bill in Congress. It would let the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) grant low-power licenses to applicants, requiring proof that a low-power station would actually harm the sound quality of another station close by on the dial.

Low-power radio is about community, and communities certainly can use help in promoting local information and awareness. (Some communities may remember when school lunch menus were broadcast by local stations.) These stations have the potential to help augment the now mostly national and international news on NPR as well as big metro stations. They can provide an alternative to the ever-growing consolidation (and homogenization) of broadcast media.

The FCC will need to monitor the radio spectrum where the bands are full, and signals can crowd one another out.

While many of the low-power applicants are in rural areas and don't pose a signal threat, the real issue may be a potential loss of revenue for established networks, either in donations to public radio or in advertising for commercial radio. But that concern assumes a zero-sum radio market, both in the number of radio listeners and in revenues. Low-power radio has the potential to greatly expand the number of radio listeners.

Public radio's roots are community-oriented, and while NPR has grown in power and stature, and maintains a high level of quality, it's lost some sight of its local roots. Only a handful of NPR-affiliate stations offer significant local programming.

Low-power radio could have a huge impact on bringing communities closer together. Commercial interests should not stand in the way.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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