Md. applicants are among first for new radio licenses

But urban airwaves may be too crowded for new FM stations

Telecommunications

May 31, 2000|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Schools, religious organizations and other nonprofit groups in Maryland are expected to be among the first in the nation to take advantage of a new Federal Communications Commission initiative to broadcast their own low-power radio stations on the FM dial.

But don't expect a rash of nonprofit stations to pop up in urban areas such as Baltimore and Washington any time soon.

The reason: Very little, if any, frequency space will be available in heavily urbanized areas, where most spaces on the FM dial are already taken.

Yesterday, nonprofit groups in Maryland were allowed to begin applying for licenses to operate radio stations on the FM frequency. The window for submitting applications to the FCC is tight - it ends Monday. Maryland is among 10 states that, with the District of Columbia, have the first window for the free permits open to them.

Groups issued licenses will be given authority to operate either 10-watt or 100-watt stations, or what are known as low-power FM stations, meaning they can be picked up by listeners within a 1-to-3-mile radius, said Steve Adamske, an FCC spokesman.

They will be barred from selling advertising time and will be required to operate at least 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Experts expect many nonprofit groups to collaborate to operate a station, thus sharing the burden of filling airtime.

The FCC's move to open the airwaves to more community groups is driven by the consolidation trend in radio, which has resulted in commercial broadcasting companies owning as many as eight stations in the same market, said Adamske.

"That's drained a lot of the space for community access out of the airwaves," he said.

Yaakov Menken, director of Project Genesis Inc., a Jewish educational organization based in Owings Mills, said the group has spent considerable time and effort looking for available low-power frequencies near major Orthodox Jewish communities in the hope of helping synagogues set up stations.

"Personally, I've been pretty disappointed," he said. "Low-power FM hasn't really lived up to its promise - at least in the urban areas we've looked at."

Project Genesis could not find any available frequencies in Baltimore; Long Island, N.Y.; Indianapolis; Rhode Island or San Francisco, all areas with Jewish groups interested in operating stations.

Cheryl Leanza, deputy director for the Media Access Project, a law firm in Washington involved in advocating diversity in media, said the law firm's research found that little, if any, frequency space will be available in major urban areas. More frequencies are available in rural areas, she said, which traditionally have been underserved by media outlets.

Still, said Leanza, the FCC's low-power initiative is a good first step in opening airwaves to nonprofit groups.

Recent advances in broadcasting technology, she said, make it possible for radio stations to broadcast much closer to one another on the dial without interference.

But the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents commercial broadcasting companies, says technology has not solved the interference issue. It opposes the FCC initiative and is backing a proposal in Congress that would block any low-power license from being issued if the broadcast would interfere with an existing radio signal.

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