WASHINGTON -- Moving to open the radio airwaves to hundreds of small broadcasters, the federal government is planning to approve rules to allow educational, religious and community groups to run inexpensive low-power FM radio stations.
Over the objections of the nation's largest broadcasters, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to adopt licensing rules today that would permit the addition of noncommercial stations with broadcasting ranges of as much as seven miles.
Government officials say the rules, proposed a year ago, could transform the airwaves at a time when the rise of broadcasting conglomerates has sharply reduced the diversity of voices. Such licenses for low-power stations have not been issued for more than 20 years.
"This will bring many new voices to the airwaves that have not had an outlet for expression," said FCC Chairman William E. Kennard. "I've been struck by the outpouring of interest from cops and clergy [to] Indian tribes and a whole range of subcultures, such as the Creole community in Florida, zydeco fans in New Orleans and others who would love to have an outlet."
The nation's largest broadcasters have fought to block the rules, asserting that the so-called micro-radio stations could create interference for established stations in the form of static or distorted signals.
They said yesterday that they will consider seeking a court order to strike down the new rules.
FCC studies have concluded that the airwaves in the nation's three biggest markets -- New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- are so crowded that the commission cannot issue any licenses for 100-watt stations, which could cover a broadcast area seven miles in diameter.
Engineers at the FCC are studying whether 10-watt stations, with a range of two to four miles, could be licensed in those markets.
Usually a formidable lobbying force, the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the nation's largest broadcast networks and station groups, was beaten at the commission by a grass-roots coalition of churches, schools, musicians, municipalities and "pirate" radio stations that billed itself as a kind of civil rights movement aimed at democratizing the airwaves.