A push to reconnect radio to local roots

FCC sends a signal that 'civil disobedience' may no longer be the onlyway to run low-power stations.

Barring a nasty temperature inversion or a preemptive strike from the authorities, Richard Edmondson's neighbors in the foggy flatlands of northwestern San Francisco will be hearing from him this weekend.

Homelessness, animal rights, and music not on the playlists of commercial radio are the likely fare for people who listen to Mr. Edmondson's San Francisco Liberation Radio, whose tiny broadcast signal will reach only several miles from the makeshift studios in his apartment.

Yet that small signal represents a powerful force building nationwide. Technologic advances, community need, and political will are creating the conditions for a back-to-the-future communication revolution encouraging low-power radio broadcasting, often called microradio.

For advocates, microradio fills a need for neighborhood-scale information - ranging from the live broadcast of a school board meeting to ethnic folk music - that is harder and harder to come by as the radio industry is controlled by fewer and larger owners.

Edmondson's promised broadcasts would be illegal. Yet he feels the time is so ripe for microradio that he's intent on committing what he calls "an act of civil disobedience" in hopes it will underscore the rightness and inevitability of community-based broadcasting.

Tactics aside, Edmondson may be right that microradio's time has come. Today, the FCC is expected to propose rules for licensing low-power FM stations that transmit at less than 100 watts, reversing the ban the FCC itself imposed about 20 years ago. Given the bureaucratic process involved, licensing would still be about a year away, says an FCC official. But the momentum seems to have begun in earnest.

"Is this a good thing for our communities? Unequivocally, yes," says Robert McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and author of several books critical of the concentration of media ownership.

OF COURSE, not everyone agrees. The powerful National Association of Broadcasters (radio and television) vows a stiff fight, and some analysts give the NAB the upper hand in Congress should it seek legislative help in thwarting FCC chairman William Kennard. "We oppose [microradio]," says NAB spokesman John Earnhardt.

Just as bluntly, Kennard told an NAB conference late last year: "We cannot deny opportunities to those who want to use the airwaves to speak to their communities simply because it might be inconvenient to those of you who already have these opportunities."

Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 loosened restrictions on radio-station ownership, the industry has consolidated into fewer hands. Ownership of commercial radio shrank 12 percent from early 1996 to late 1997, according to the FCC, even as the number of stations grew. And the number of African-American-owned FM stations dropped 26 percent in that time frame; Hispanic-owned stations declined 9 percent.

Another unmistakable trend is advancing technology that has made transmitting cheaper and the precision of radio reception greater, allowing for more stations, say microradio supporters.

The NAB's principal opposition to microradio is concern that it will degrade "spectrum integrity," or clutter the airwaves with too many stations, causing unclear signals. It's doubly concerned about that problem as the industry transitions to digital broadcasting, which in effect will lessen the buffer between existing stations as they broadcast in both analog and digital.

While the FCC has promised not to allow any spectrum degradation, some of the NAB's critics say the real concern is just greater competition.

Lining up behind the push for microradio is a range of organizations and institutions across the country. The University of Wisconsin, for instance, wants a radio station but has been tied up in court for several years trying to get zoning approval for a large-scale radio tower. With a microradio station, such a tower would be unnecessary.

In Tucson, Ariz., a community group called Access Tucson sees lots of promise in microradio. One possibility is setting up a station to report community news about the Navajo reservation to Navajo in the city.

The Wisconsin and Tucson examples are cited by a new Washington group called the Low Power Radio Coalition. Mike Bracy, a spokesman for the coalition, says numerous churches, cities, schools, and community groups are gearing up to back legalizing microradio stations because they offer such an inexpensive way to serve local communities.

While some liken the approach to cable television community-access stations, microradio's production costs are considerably less than television's. And while the Internet has opened a whole new world of transmitting information and news, it requires users to have access to a computer.

For many, microradio has the greatest potential for reconnecting low-income communities to civic life.

"We think there is a compelling need for something along these lines," says Andrew Schwartzman, director of the Washington-based Media Access Project. Why? "Radio has been abandoning its local roots," he says.

To that, the NAB counters that radio broadcasters already do plenty of community-service programming, which according to its own study was worth close to $7 billion in 1997.

Not all advocates of microradio endorse Edmondson's approach. Indeed, he began broadcasting illegally in the early 1990s but ceased last year in the face of a concerted FCC crackdown across the country on illegal microradio.

While Edmondson is supportive of the FCC's new initiative to legalize microradio, he and other activists remain concerned about the details of the proposal. A key issue for them is how the FCC proposes to allocate the FM airwaves to microradio stations between commercial and noncommercial interests.

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