TCS Daily

Opening Up the Airwaves

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 22, 2003 12:00 AM

A while back, I challenged FCC Chairman Michael Powell to stand up for free expression on the Internet. Now, undeterred by the lack of any visible response, I'm going to go that one better, and challenge him to stand up for free expression on the radio. Because as things stand now, the FCC is a major barrier to free speech, and the only justification for its position has just been exploded.

How big a barrier? This big:

Freedom to create means more than that: not just the right to choose among 500 TV stations instead of three, but fewer barriers to setting up a station of your own; not just greater ease in joining the officially licensed elite, but the right to operate outside it. Like the freedom to choose, the freedom to create is being withheld by an alliance of policymakers and professionals. The technical cost of starting a station has been within most Americans' reach for years. The legal cost, however, is much higher: thousands of dollars to purchase an existing license, thousands more to cross various regulatory hurdles. With very few exceptions, the FCC won't even issue licenses to noncommercial stations of less than 100 watts. Class A commercial stations require at least 6,000 watts of power.

Some years ago, the FCC decided to license low-power radio as a separate category. Powerful broadcasting interests -- including, ironically, National Public Radio -- responded to the threat of competition by lobbying successfully for legislation that made the licensing of low-power stations far more difficult. In particular, the spacing between stations that the bill required made the creation of low-power stations in urban areas very difficult. (This story by Jesse Walker of Reason provides some good background.) One of the requirements of the bill, however, was a technical study on interference, with a provision for removing the spacing requirement if the study showed that interference wouldn't be a problem.

Now the study, done by the MITRE Corporation, has been released -- to little fanfare, and only after the threat of a Freedom of Information Act demand. That suggests that the FCC doesn't want to hear what the study says. And that may be because the study says that low-power FM radio doesn't pose a significant interference problem. Here's an excerpt:

Based on the measurements and analysis reported herein, existing third-adjacent channel distance restrictions should be waived to allow LPFM operation at locations that meet all other FCC requirements [after four small revisions]... The FCC should not undertake the additional expense of a formal listener test program or a Phase II economic analysis of the potential radio interference impact to LPFM on incumbent FPFM [full-power FM] stations... Perceptible interference caused during the tests by temporary LPFM stations operating on third-adjacent channels occurred too seldom, especially outside the immediate vicinity of the sites where the stations were operating, to warrant the additional expense that those follow-on activities would entail.

The question that a lot of people have been raising lately is this: is the FCC really devoted to efficient and diverse communications, or is it just a bureaucratic flunky for the big broadcasting companies? The response to this report -- which was buried in the comment section of the FCC's website and not publicly announced -- suggests that the cynics may be right. But it's not too late for the FCC to prove them wrong.

Powell's justification for relaxing the rules on broadcast media concentration was that new media -- the Internet, satellite broadcasting, etc. -- would ensure that concentration in commercial broadcasting would be offset by new sources of information. As James Plummer wrote here a while back, ending the suppression of microradio is a better way of promoting diversity than more regulation. If Powell really believes in broadcast diversity, then now that the bogus interference concerns raised by NPR and the National Association of Broadcasters have turned out to be, well, bogus, he should endorse the growth of low-power FM stations. Sure, Clear Channel and NPR don't want to face the competition. But protecting fatcats from competition isn't what the FCC is all about. Is it?

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