Diversity for the air waves

September 14, 1999

Here is an excerpt of an editorial from the Los Angeles Times, which was published yesterday.

SINCE 1996, when Congress lifted caps on the number of radio stations a single network could own, broadcast chains have snatched up so many local radio stations that commercial radio formats sound the same from San Diego to Schenectady, N.Y.

Fortunately, FCC Chairman William Kennard is now pushing a plan that could return color to radio's barren commercial landscape.

He wants to hand out hundreds of new, low-wattage FM radio licenses to "give voice to those ideas not always heard, but which many yearn to hear."

The tiny stations could air anything from talk radio in Korean to open-mike sessions for singer-songwriters and comedians, parents discussing how to keep kids out of neighborhood gangs or churches serving ethnic communities. Their reach would be measured in a few miles.

At a conference in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month, large broadcasters declared war on Mr. Kennard's plan.

Fearing competition that could cut into their $14-billion annual revenues, they claimed the new stations would interfere with existing radio signals.

However, none of the FCC's extensive tests have detailed interference problems so far, and any subsequent problems could be fixed simply by reducing the wattage allowed under the licenses.

Sensing that their interference argument might not fly, broadcasters are pressuring Mr. Kennard to let them buy up to 10 microradio stations each in an auction. That would defeat Mr. Kennard's whole purpose, frustrating any opportunity for diverse voices on the dial.

It would be particularly unseemly to require community groups or churches to bid alongside broadcast Goliaths, given that the FCC handed the well-heeled broadcasters, free, $70 billion worth of "digital" spectrum licenses in 1996. The low-wattage licenses should be allocated on a first-come basis, and at least half should be noncommercial.

Owners should live near the station. Applicants who find themselves in competition for a given slot should be given an opportunity to work out conflicts by cooperation or compromise, such as splitting air time.

At the Orlando convention, many radio executives spoke as if the FCC existed solely to further their narrow self-interest.

David Siddall, an attorney for a company that's upgrading the equipment of commercial broadcasters, said the "FCC's most important goal" should be giving existing broadcasters more spectrum room so they could offer new digital services like promotional photos of performers and advertisements for CDs.

Wrong. The FCC's most important goal should be protecting the public interest, which means remembering that the airwaves are a public trust. Mr. Kennard's microradio plan is a significant, if modest, step toward that goal.

Pub Date: 9/14/99

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