Small players want their share of air waves

Surrounded by machine parts and cobwebs, Jackie Scalzo and David Gowler stand on the loose floorboards of the old sewing-machine factory turned warehouse here, where they intend to build a nonprofit low-power radio station.

After waiting three years, their group - known as Valley Free Radio - heard that its application for a 100-watt station was approved by the FCC. Now they must cobble together enough equipment and money to convert a section of this dank warehouse near Northampton, Mass., into a working radio station.

If Ms. Scalzo and Mr. Gowler and the rest of Valley Free Radio succeed, they will join the growing number of "low-power" radio stations operating in small towns and rural communities. They broadcast from an odd assortment of basements, garages, garden sheds, schools, and churches in an effort to return localism to the FM dial.

About 238 of these noncommercial stations are currently on the air, while another 670 organizations have been granted construction permits by the FCC, and 897 more are awaiting approval.

And the number of low-power stations broadcasting everything from Pentecostal sermons to polkas could grow by the thousands if a bill to expand low-power service to urban areas introduced last week into the US Senate by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona) and Patrick J. Leahy (D) of Vermont) is approved.

Their bill would restore the original FCC plan to give nonprofits access to unused spectrum on the FM dial. That access was severely limited four years ago after big radio's chief lobbyist, the National Association of Broadcasters, together with National Public Radio, convinced Congress that an onslaught of new radio stations would cause too much interference on the FM dial.

It was classic David vs. Goliath - the deep-pocketed NAB along with unlikely ally NPR, against community groups interested in returning local programming to the airwaves.

The NAB and NPR prevailed and Congress passed a law restricting low-power stations to only the smallest markets - places where there is often more static than stations on the dial.

But now the little guys are mounting a comeback.

"This bill would also right a serious wrong. Four years ago Congress wrongly delayed the full implementation of a new community- based radio service called 'low-power FM' due to broadcasters' grossly exaggerated claims of interference," said Senator McCain last week.

The 2000 law required the FCC to conduct field tests to verify claims of low-power interference with commercial signals. In February, the nonprofit technical research group Mitre Corp. concluded that there was no evidence of interference. The test results prompted McCain and Leahy to introduce the new legislation.

But the NAB is standing by its original claim that low-power radio signals might cause interference.

"It is unfortunate Senator McCain is relying on the deeply flawed Mitre study in supporting the authorization of more low-power FM stations," said NAB president and CEO Edward Fritts in a prepared statement. "Local radio listeners should not be subjected to the inevitable interference that would result from shoehorning more stations onto an already overcrowded radio dial."

But even if Congress restores the FCC's original plans for low-power permits, it's uncertain when more applications would be accepted, given the backlog of about 1,000 stations currently waiting for license approval.

And yet the need for such stations continues to grow, argue their advocates.

"We have a media right now that isn't guided by any interest in public service or giving the means of self-expression to the community, its goal is to shock and titillate," says Dylan Wrynn, aka Pete Tri Dish, of the Prometheus Radio Project. "What media needs is some 'green space' where there's room for the polka hour."

It was Mr. Wrynn - who once operated a Philadelphia pirate radio station shut down by the FCC - who has persuaded numerous nonprofits, including the Northampton group, to seek low-power radio permits. He travels the country lecturing on the merits of community radio and conducts radio "barn raisings" that can usually build a working station in a few days for about $5,000.

Academy award winning filmmaker and writer Michael Wadleigh runs his WXGR FM station from a garden shed next to the airport in Dover, N.H. His goal: "To do independent media and cover all aspects of an issue."

Mainstream radio is too canned, too generic, too controlled by media heavyweights Clear Channel and Viacom, argue low-power broadcasters. Their offerings, they say, better reflect local interests.

At a radio station in Polk County, Ore., a farming community about 50 miles from Portland, "Horse Talk" airs at five o'clock every Tuesday on KPIE FM.

"We can focus and do focus on local events," says Fred Compton, general manager of KPIE. Stations in Portland and Eugene don't cover local news "unless there's a mass murder."

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