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Radio AM to FM: February 5, 1999

Low Power in Your Future?

When the FCC authorized radio broadcasting on the FM band, it set aside a portion of the band for noncommercial broadcasting. That way, colleges, universities and churches could obtain a license in the 88.1 to 91.9 MHz portion of the FM band and broadcast local news, features and information that couldn't be found on the rest of the band -- the commercial portion.

The FCC also made it easier for groups to get on the air by authorizing low power broadcasts -- generally about 10 to 100 watts -- which would allow not only for more truly localized stations, but allow various groups to get on the air fairly cheaply.

All this changed in 1978 when the FCC stopped licensing low-power stations. Those on the air could stay, but no new low power stations would be authorized. The thinking back then was that full-power FM stations needed help to grow both in listenership and financially, since AM was still the dominant band at the time.

A lot has changed since 1978. Now FM stations are hardly in need of growth and financial support. Now only 133 low-power stations still exist; their numbers were once in the thousands. Now group owners are allowed to own multiple stations in the same market, making it exceedingly hard for any local voices to be heard.

That's why the FCC is looking toward possibly licensing low-power FM stations once again. From 1 watt (covering a radius of approximately one mile) to 1000 watts (covering a radius of approximately nine miles), stations may again be licensed to serve the local community.

I know that San Pedro High School is looking toward starting a radio station, and I'm sure that many other groups in the South Bay hope to do the same. Perhaps soon (or at least sometime in the not-too-distant future) you'll be able to hear high-school sports as broadcast by a future sportscaster, city council meetings, sermons, or even some teenager's favorite local band.

It's a great idea with a few questions: How does the FCC decide who gets a license? Will any commercial broadcasts be allowed? (I hope not). Will there be problems with interference? (Not if its done right). Will there be complaints from the commercial broadcasters and current non-commercial broadcasters? (You can count on it. They're the ones that convinced the FCC to stop the low-powered stations in the first place).

You can be sure that the biggest complaints will come from the current non-commercial stations ... those that, like professionally-staffed KLON at Long Beach State, forced low-power stations like CSULB's old student-run KSUL off the air. Personally, I don't care what the complaints are, it can be made to work. And those that forced the real voice of the community off the air in the 1970s and 1980s shouldn't have a say in this potential policy change.


Copyright © 1999 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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