Minneapolis Star Tribune
Friday, October 6, 2000
FCC tries to bring low-power FM to the people
Noel Holston / Star Tribune staff writer
Who wants to be a low-power radio broadcaster?
Women Against Military Madness, to name one Twin Cities organization. "Peace and justice groups have very little voice" on radio, said Ellen Abbott, a member of WAMM's steering committee.
The American Indian Center in south Minneapolis, to name another. "There's a wonderful wealth of native-community people who have a history of struggling together, and helping each other, and doing positive things that don't often get highlighted by anybody" in the media, said staffer Juanita Espinoza.
I could name 61 more -- religious, community and educational groups from Mankato to Duluth that have applied for low-power FM licenses under a program initiated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this year. One would use a frequency to teach Hmong immigrants citizenship and reading. Another would communicate with seniors. Several would spread the gospel.
Most of the proposed FM outlets would be allowed 10 watts of power, enough to beam a signal a mile or two. Some would be 100-watters, reaching listeners within 31*2 miles. The FCC might authorize as many as six 100-watt outlets in the Twin Cities -- or a greater number of 10-watt stations.
"We really have to focus on creating more opportunities for listeners," FCC chairman William Kennard said last week as he approvingly toured Minneapolis community station KFAI and met some of the diverse staff members that broadcast programs in 11 languages. "That's what my job is all about: more diversity, more voices."
The first stations could be broadcasting by early 2001. But the FCC's plans have run into resistance from established broadcast interests who say they're concerned that the low-power stations, slipped into vacant frequencies on the FM dial, will create static and diminish their product.
Jim DuBois, chief executive of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association, said its members don't fault the FCC's objective of diversifying the airwaves. But he said they genuinely are concerned about signal interference.
Static from broadcasters
It may seem unlikely that a 100-watt station could affect the signal of a 100,000-watt outlet such as KSJN (99.5 FM) or KQRS (92.5). But broadcasters insist that nobody knows yet.
DuBois said the FCC has lab-tested the low-power FM but hasn't field-tested it. The Minnesota group, like its national counterpart, the National Association of Broadcasters, has lobbied Congress to force the FCC to slow down and do more research. A bill to restrict the licensing of low-power stations already has passed the U.S. House. The U.S. Senate is considering a similar bill introduced by Minnesota's Sen. Rod Grams. Opponents of low-power FM would like to see Grams' bill passed and attached to a spending bill, putting President Clinton in an all-or-nothing veto situation.
For commercial broadcasters facing competition from direct-satellite broadcast, the Internet and broadband services, a diminished signal could prove costly. And DuBois pointed out that while interference may not be a problem for listeners with high-tech tuners, it very well may be one for people using a simple clock radio or a Walkman.
Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) also has raised objections. Will Haddeland, senior vice president for public relations, said MPR is concerned that the FCC is taking away broadcasters' "third channel adjacency" protections.
In layman's terms, that means the FCC has always left breathing room between FM frequencies. For example, there are currently three slots left empty between KFAI's 90.3 and KNOW's 91.1 FM -- 90.5, 90.7 and 90.9.
Haddeland said MPR is worried that if the FCC fills up those slots, even with 10-watt stations, it could cause problems -- if not for KNOW's primary signal, for the "subcarrier" slivers of the 91.1 FM frequency over which MPR broadcasts its Radio Talking Book service for the blind. (Customers receive a special radio receiver -- available from Minnesota Services for the Blind, 1-800-652-9000 -- that picks up only the subcarrier broadcast.)
The FCC's view
Kennard is unmoved. "I think this interference issue is really a smokescreen," he said. "It's a smokescreen to try to keep new voices from getting on the air."
Last week, he toured KFAI (90.3 and 106.7 FM) with a group of American Indian broadcasters from around the country. Kennard said KFAI is the embodiment of the low-power idea. It started as a 10-watt station and eventually was upgraded to 125 watts. Despite early concerns -- especially from MPR, which tried to block its licensing -- KFAI has operated for 22 years without creating significant interference problems.
"That's what we have to do with this new low-power FM service: find ways for low-power FM stations to peacefully coexist with the existing full-power stations," Kennard said. "We know this can be done. We have reams and reams of engineering studies and reports that demonstrate this.
"And if you look at the history of policymaking at my agency, every time the FCC has attempted to introduce a new service, there has been resistance from the incumbents. This is nothing new. We heard it when FM radio was authorized. We heard it when low-power TV stations were authorized. Direct broadcast satellite. All these technologies had to run the gantlet of incumbent, often commercial interests that don't want the new competition.
"The last thing that I would want to do as chairman of the FCC is to create interference problems that are going to overwhelm my agency," he said.
If problems do arise, the FCC "will have in place an expedited complaint procedure, so we will be able to resolve interference complaints very quickly," Kennard said. "In the worst case, we may have to go to a low-power FM station and require that they cease
So who do you listen to, an FCC chairman who is clearly evangelical about this cause, or the full-powered broadcasters who say they fear that the low-power amateur hours may put static in their classic rock? Perhaps we should just listen to some of the applicants.
Espinoza, for instance, believes that radio is the ideal medium for reaching and uniting the Twin Cities' American Indian community. She noted "the high concentration of native people in south Minneapolis" and their storytelling tradition.
"We have to look at the full spectrum of how we get our voices heard," she said. "Particularly in radio, it's nonthreatening. You're talking. No one can see you. Your words are instant and they're gone, so to speak. It's a different medium that we're more comfortable with as an oral-tradition people."
She said the American Indian Center, which filed the FCC application on behalf of a variety of groups, is interested in using a frequency to teach native languages, present health and political news, music and cultural programming and perhaps import "Native American Calling," a national magazine program currently without a radio home in the Twin Cities.
At the Minnesota Literacy Council, low-power FM is looked upon as "a great outlet for teaching immigrants English as well as citizenship," said teacher Ron Mazurowski. In keeping with the FCC's hope that groups with similar interests will pool resources and share a frequency, the council is cooperating with the United Cambodian Association of Minnesota, the Vietnamese Minnesotans Association and the Center for Hmong Arts & Talent.
"One of the problems in particular for the Hmong, since they've really only had a written language in the last 50 years, is their difficulty in reading," Mazurowski said. "They're a very oral culture. We're thinking of doing the news in simple English. We're looking into reading children's books.
"I've had a number of mothers tell me, 'Oh, my child wants me to read, but I can barely read myself.' For little kids who are just learning their language and then come into school and have to start learning English, this is almost like a Head Start program.
"We're not asking for too much here," Marurowski said. "Just a little crumb."
Call NoelHolston at 612-673-4866 or e-mail email@example.com
Screw trying to reason with the FCC. Just put up a station and let the FCC burn. Remember the CB band and illegal linear amplifiers. Today I hear guys clear down in Texas and I don't see anyone getting busten for there 1,000 watt rig.
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