Grass-Roots Radio

Mom 'n' pop broadcasters get a second chance with new FCC rules

January 31, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Billy Vanhoozier thought about going from rural preacher to radio pirate.

The 54-year-old pastor lives in Deer Park, a mountaintop hamlet so deep in Garrett County he can tun in only a few stations on the FM dial. None are local, he says, and few pay more than lip service to the communities outside their home base.

"Radio stations today aren't geared to give help. And I think they should," he says.

So he thought: What if he started his own radio station? Then he could tell people about the yard sale the Jacksons are having down the road today, or preach the Gospel to the snowbound elderly. He could even spin his favorite gospel tunes, offering people a break from ubiquitous Top 40 trash.

Until this month, Vanhoozier would have been breaking the law if he'd started a station, because the Federal Communications Commission has granted licenses only to stations operating at 6,000 watts of power or more.

But after two years of heated debate, the FCC this month voted to open the FM dial to people like Vanhoozier who can't afford hundreds of thousands of dollars for a big-time station but want to reach out to their neighbors.

Under the ruling, new low-power stations must be noncommercial, locally owned, and produce no more than 100 watts of power -- giving them a potential range of 3.5 miles.

That's puny compared to traditional broadcasters. But in a city like Baltimore, a low-power station could reach tens of thousands of listeners.

In tiny Deer Park, says Vanhoozier, you're talking about practically the whole town.

As a result, low-power FM has captured the public imagination. Over the past year, the FCC has been flooded by more than 3,400 comments on the issue -- the kind of reaction it usually sees only during debates over cable television rates and other big-money issues, says Susanna Zwerling, a lawyer in the agency's Mass Media Bureau.

She and others working on the low-power FM issue have heard from churches and schools who want to start stations. They've heard from Haitians in south Florida and tiny record labels who say they've been locked out of the airwaves. A grandmother called, pumped about the proposal.

Many of the FCC's correspondents complained that radio has changed, that too many small stations have been snapped up by big companies.

"All of which leads to the perception that the interests of small groups and individuals are being lost, and that important voices and viewpoints are being shut out," FCC Chairman William Kennard noted this month.

The dial hasn't always looked like this, says Susan Douglas, a historian at the University of Michigan and author of "Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination."

Once, the airwaves were alive with diversity. In the 1920s, neighborhood churches and local labor unions had stations. So did black Americans and other minorities. Even department stores were on the air. "There was a lot of emphasis on the community and local broadcasting," Douglas says.

Not surprisingly, the airwaves also were buzzing with interference as signals collided. Gradually, the federal government cleaned up the dial, granting broadcast privileges to larger commercial stations and forcing smaller, nontraditional operations off the air.

"From the beginning, for-profit broadcasting is the one that won out," Douglas says.

But the biggest change occurred with the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Traditionally, the FCC had forbidden broadcasters from owning more than two stations in a market. Today, they can own eight. The result: Since 1996, more than 1,000 mom-and-pop stations have sold out or gone off the air.

The broadcast companies that remain are fighting the low-power concept. The FCC has heard an earful from the National Association of Broadcasters and groups such as the United Drive-In Theater Owners Association, both of which argued that thousands of new low-power stations might foul already congested airwaves.

For commercial broadcasters, the arggument against low power is simple: A spoiled signal means fewer listeners. Fewer listeners means adios to advertisers. Even the NAB's opponents understand this.

"The technical integrity of their signal is their lifeblood," says Michael Bracy, executive director of the Low Power Radio Coalition in Washington.

"The NAB will review every option to undo the damage caused by low-power radio," NAB president Edward O. Fritts said defiantly the day the FCC voted to open the FM dial to low-power broadcasters. The organization is considering filing a lawsuit and pushing a bill introduced in November by Rep. Michael G. Oxley, a Ohio Republican, that would outlaw low-power stations.

But some public broadcasters -- with the notable exception of National Public Radio -- feel differently. "As far as I'm concerned, the more voices out there, the better," says Ray Dilley, general manager of WJHU in Baltimore. "The question is: How can it be done so it doesn't create pandemonium?"

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