Their reach is only a few miles, but short-distance FM broadcasts have generated a steady crackle of controversy.
Until recently that controversy had swirled around the federal government's determination to crack down on the unlicensed, low-power FM radio stations - known as "pirates" - which played to a small, but often fiercely loyal, local audience.
"Radio Free Berkeley," in Berkeley, Calif., was the classic case. Its shuttering by the Federal Communications Commission was upheld by a federal district court in 1998. Soon thereafter, the FCC closed more than 300 other low-power FM stations. The agency, clearly, was not going to tolerate any end runs, however small-scale, around its licensing authority.
But Washington's keeper of the airwaves has had a change of heart. The FCC has decided to offer licenses for some 1,000 low-power FM stations. Applications begin this month. William Kennard, FCC chairman, lauds the ministations as "new voices" that can counter the increasing concentration of ownership in media. With an investment of only a few thousand dollars in low-power equipment, a new station can be born.
This is a welcome development. But Mr. Kennard's vision of fostering a new - fully licensed - wave of local, participatory broadcasting has its critics. Some complain that requiring new stations to be noncommercial (without advertising) greatly limits who'll participate. Nonprofit organizations, schools, and churches are the most likely takers.
Established broadcasters, private and public, are also complaining. They claim the low-power newcomers (a maximum of 100 watts) will cause interference on their stations (6,000 watts and up). FCC engineers say this won't be a problem. But some in Congress are backing the broadcasters, pushing bills to block the FCC's plan.
That plan may have its flaws. But it's a lot better than banishing from the airwaves - which are, after all, a public trust - small-time broadcasters who have a point of view, provide a local service, or play a type of music unheard at present. Congress should not let itself be influenced by well-funded broadcasters and stifle small "new voices" on FM radio.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society