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Low-Power Radio Stations Proposed

January 28, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ For disc jockey wannabes, it’s a ticket to the airwaves.

Thousands of low-tech, low-cost radio stations sprouting up across the country airing church services, city council meetings and high school basketball games.

The Federal Communications Commission today was expected to take the first step toward creating a very local radio service that would help community and regional interest groups get on the air.

The FCC will offer proposals to create thousands of new low-power FM radio stations. These ``micro″ radio broadcasters would operate with low power levels from 1 watt to 1,000 watts and would be licensed by the FCC.

``It is an opportunity to create new alternative voices on the airwaves,″ said FCC Chairman Bill Kennard.

Depending on the height of the antenna and the terrain, a 1-watt station typically serves an area with a diameter of about two miles _ and a 1,000-watt station an area with a diameter of up to 18 miles.

The proposals also address the issue of consolidation in the radio industry, which has made it increasingly difficult for the voices of minorities and community groups to be heard.

A 1996 law triggered rapid consolidation in the industry by relaxing limits on the number of radio stations held by any one owner.

``This would bring radio back to the neighborhood,″ said Cheryl Leanza, an attorney with the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm.

Wilmer Urgelles wants to start a low-powered station to air Sunday services, Bible studies and Christian music in Spanish, something he says would be useful to the many elderly members who have trouble getting around.

``We are in such need of a station like this,″ said Urgelles of the Iglesia Cristiana El Buen Samaritano in Princeton, Fla.

In an effort to help regular FM stations grow and become financially solid, the FCC stopped licensing low-powered FM radio stations around 1978. As a result, just 133 mostly educational, low-powered FM stations now exist.

Some city governments have expressed interest in starting a low-power FM station to air transportation and weather information in the mornings, plus community news and city council meetings later in the day.

But the radio industry opposes the idea, saying it would create interference with other radio stations, said National Association of Broadcasters’ spokesman John Earnhardt.

Kennard, a strong supporter of the new licenses, countered broadcasters’ predictions, saying his agency will protect existing radio services. ``We don’t want to do anything that is going to prevent consumers from getting good, interference-free radio,″ he said.

The proposals are subject to revision, public comment and another vote before they would take effect. The FCC is supposed to seek public comment on whether the stations should be noncommercial, commercial or a mix.

It’s also unclear what standards any group _ including special-interest groups _ would have to meet to get a low-power license. Right now to get a higher-power license, companies generally must show they want to serve a particular area _ plus provide information about any past criminal record or discrimination dispute.

Low-powered stations are cheaper to build because the equipment isn’t as expensive. In addition to avoiding the big expense of building a tower for antennas, stations likely will have an easier time getting zoning approval for smaller rooftop antennas.

Costs can be as low as $2,500 for a 1-watt station to $100,000 and up for a 1,000-watt station, FCC officials said.

Separately, the FCC is considering postponing a vote today to release an audit of the five Bell telephone companies showing that billions of dollars in equipment can’t be accounted for.

The FCC, however, is expected to:

_Propose that long-distance companies compensate pay phone owners 24 cents for each calling card or access code call.

_Release a report on availability of high-speed Internet and data connections.

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