Case Overview, Distribution of Low Power FM Radio Licenses

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over distribution of Low Power FM radio licenses. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.


The spectrum for radio broadcasting is a limited resource: there is only so much "space" for the electromagnetic waves that broadcasters transmit to the radios in our homes and cars. Thus, there are a limited number of positions on the AM and FM band for radio stations that want to broadcast in a particular geographic area. The Federal Communications Act of 1934 was passed by Congress to deal with the problem of radio stations interfering with each other's signal. If Jones creates a radio station at 102.5 on the dial and Smith creates a radio station at 102.6, the two stations' signals would interfere with each other and the listener would hear conflicting noise rather than a clear signal of voice or music. (Indeed, Jones or Smith could start a station to purposely interfere with an existing signal and then ask for money to go away.) The 1934 law created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the FCC began to regulate the airwaves by licensing individual stations, specifying a place on the dial for them, and protecting the adjacent space on the spectrum so that their signal wouldn't be interfered with.
           A fundamental change in the radio industry came with passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Before it became law there were limits on how many radio stations any one company could own. (There are still limits on how many can be owned in a given market.) After 1996, there was a strong movement toward consolidation in the industry as a small number of companies began to buy up stations from around the country. In the eyes of many, this consolidation has lead to an increasingly homogeneous industry with only limited diversity in formats.
           Against this backdrop in 1999 the FCC proposed new regulations to offer some additional licenses to low power FM outlets. These low power stations would have limited wattage, giving them a more sharply circumscribed broadcast reach than their heftier counterparts. Given the limited reach of their signal, the low power licenses would not appeal to the large commercial radio chains, but instead would be of interest to nonprofits, churches, and community groups. One observer said that these regulations fit FCC chairman William Kennard's vision of radio at the turn of the 21st century. "He wants his legacy to be about giving 'small groups' access to the radio airwaves."
Strong opposition to the regulations emerged from the radio industry because of its concern about interference with existing stations' signals. Working with allies in the Congress, a bill was introduced to sharply restrict the FCC's plan to license new low power stations. A form of this bill passed the House but no action was taken in the Senate.

Leading the charge against the FCC's regulations was the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the leading trade group representing radio and television broadcasters. Although it is a large and wealthy lobby, the NAB's real power comes from its unusual membership: the local broadcasters who run radio and TV stations. Legislators have a rather obvious interest in developing good relations with the press and local broadcasters have excellent access to their members of Congress. The Consumer Electronics Manufacturers also supported the restrictions on new stations, though it wasn't a major player.
           On the other side, the Media Access Project, a citizens' group, strongly supported Kennard's initiative. Also supporting the FCC was the Low Power Radio Coalition, which was made up of local governments and musicians, including the Indigo Girls and Bonnie Raitt. There was an interesting split among religious groups. Some mainstream churches and organizations like the United Church of Christ, the Lutheran Church, the Methodist Church, and the National Council of Churches, supported the regulations. So, too, did the National Council of Evangelicals, which wanted the added licenses so the small churches that predominate among its membership could gain access to the airwaves. Standing opposed was the National Religious Broadcasters, the trade association for existing radio stations utilizing a religious format. They didn't want the new low power licenses to be issued by the FCC, arguing that there would be interference with existing stations. One critic, however, charged that the real reason the National Religious Broadcasters didn't support the new regulations was because they believed that there were already enough religious broadcasters. "Imagine if they said when new churches came to town that there were already enough churches!"
           Rep. Michael Oxley (R.-Ohio) led the fight against the regulations in the House. A number of other powerful legislators, including Billy Tauzin (R.-LA) and John Dingell (D.-MI) were critics of the plan. On the Senate side John McCain (R.-AZ) was the most important figure as he chaired the Senate Commerce Committee. McCain opposed the legislation aimed at restricting low power licensing. Judd Gregg (R.-NH) introduced a companion bill to Oxley's but he doesn't serve on the Commerce Committee so his influence was limited.

The proponents of the new regulations believed that the radio industry was becoming less and less representative of our diverse country. Said one industry opponent, "a handful of large corporations, each owning hundreds of stations, have transformed radio from our most local medium, substituting national management for local decision-making, eliminating newscasts, and imposing bland cookie-cutter program formats." Proponents believed that corporate radio chains had little interest in minorities or in unconventional points of view. Said one supporter of the regulations, radio today "cannot bring all the voices who wish to speak on the air."
The opposition by existing broadcasters was not a fear that the result would be increased competition for advertising dollars-the typical low power FM stations added to a community wouldn't attract much, if any advertising because of their small, niche audiences. Rather, broadcasters were upset by the regulations because they weakened the defense against interference on the radio spectrum. To accommodate the new low power outlets, the regulations reduced the width of the adjacent space around each existing station's signal that could not be used by other broadcasters. More interference means fewer listeners-no one wants to listen to static. Said one lobbyist, "People use pretty cheap radios today-a Walkman, a clock radio. These radios will not broadcast adjacent stations clearly." Proponents of the regulations sharply disputed the industry's contention, and believed the interference problem was grossly exaggerated.
For those opposing the regulations, the greatest impediment was the authority of the FCC to propose regulations under the broad rulemaking powers granted to it under the Federal Communications Act of 1934. Opponents of the regulations had to get a bill passed through the Congress, not easy to do under any circumstances. Given the opposition of Sen. McCain, the road in the Senate was a difficult one.

Although this policy had its roots in the changes fostered by Congress's Telecommunications Act of 1996, this dispute has its immediate origins in the actions of the Federal Communications Commission. Its proposed regulations for low-power FM radio licenses catalyzed action in Congress by those opposed to the change in policy. On the congressional side, the main arena was the House Commerce Committee, where the legislation that eventually passed the House was incubated.
           Another venue is the courts as the National Association of Broadcasters filed suit against the FCC over these regulations. The Media Access Project has become active on the suit, representing some of the church groups who support the regulations.

Lobbying Activities and Tactics
Lobbyists opposed to the regulations made little headway with the FCC. Said one, "We saw it coming that the FCC wouldn't listen so we knew we'd have to go to Congress." Consequently they mobilized their members and asked them to contact their members of Congress. Those in opposition to the regulations succeeded in bringing the alleged problem with interference to the attention of many legislators. One unusual tactic is that they produced a CD demonstrating the interference problem and played it at the House hearings. Around 175 members of the House signed on to Oxley's bill and 37 co-sponsored Gregg's bill.
           The Media Access Project, one of the supporters of the regulations, hired an engineer to conduct a technical study and found that only 1.6 percent of listeners in areas served by new, low-power stations, will hear interference when they listen to the radio.