Low-power radio push

Sep 15, 1999 at 12:00 am

With the Federal Communications Commission cutting off public comment this week on a proposal to legalize low-power FM stations, this is certain: The views of Michigan residents will be well-represented when a decision on the matter is finally made.

Tom Ness made sure of that.

As editor and publisher of Jam Rag, a music magazine based in Ferndale, Ness spearheaded a campaign that resulted in an estimated 10,000 letters from Michigan residents urging support of the plan.

In addition, resolutions from 31 city councils and county commissions in Michigan have also been passed in support of the proposal.

Currently, non-commercial FM stations powered at less than 100 watts are unable to obtain the FCC license that would allow them to operate legally. A growing movement of "pirate" broadcasters operating without licenses seeks to provide alternatives to commercial stations that have become increasingly homogenous as mergers and acquisitions put ownership into the hands of a shrinking number of corporations.

The FCC proposal would open the way for small, community-oriented stations to provide alternative programming ranging from foreign-language broadcasts to airtime for local bands.

"In all the activism I’ve been involved with, I’ve never seen anything like this," says Ness.

Neither, apparently, has the FCC. Groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to school districts and fire departments have voiced support of the plan, says FCC staff attorney Paul Gordon.

"We want these groups to serve the local communities because they are overlooked by mainstream radio," he said.

Gordon hopes that the FCC will reach a decision by the end of the year.

"It’s a complicated issue that will take a long time to analyze, but it is one of our chairman’s top priorities," said Gordon.

Opposition to the plan has come mainly from commercial broadcasters, who fear that competition from hundreds of new community stations will cut heir profits and turn the airwaves into a static-filled mess.

"Our whole thing is technical, technical, technical," says Karole White, president of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters in Lansing. "If you can’t receive any one signal clearly, it doesn’t do anyone any good."

FCC Chairman William Kennard, a vocal supporter of opening airwaves to community stations, has said tests conducted by the agency indicate low-power broadcasters can operate without interfering with existing stations.

"At this point," says Ness, "we’re cautiously optimistic."

Although support at the FCC appears strong, Ness and other activists are concerned that commercial broadcasters appear to be shifting their focus to Congress.

"We were hoping that we would just be able to sit back and watch what the FCC does," explains Ness. "But now, with the National Association of Broadcasters lobbying Congress on the issue, we’re not going to have that luxury. With an election next year, there may not be too many people in Congress willing to buck the commercial broadcasters."

"The NAB and the MAB really need to share public property with the rest of us," says Ness. "We’re counting on Congress to stick up for the voters and not just the ones who make the big campaign contributions."