Low power FM:
A small history
Gregory J. Adamo
105 Myrtle Ave.
Metuchen, NJ 08840
[log in to unmask]
Running Head: LOW POWER
This study investigates low power broadcasting, its basis in non-
commercial FM radio, how the FCC first licensed and encouraged its
development, and the reasons it eventually did away with it. Today, when
both the commercial and public broadcasters have become bigger and more
centralized, it is important not to forget that the 'little' broadcaster was
part of the radio mix and that even when no longer legal, the needs and
interests for this broadcaster have not gone away.
Low power FM:
A small history
This study will investigate low power broadcasting, its basis in non-
commercial radio, how the FCC first licensed and encouraged its
development, and the reasons that the FCC eventually did away with it. In
the process I also will show low power broadcasting's place in the
development and changes in non-commercial broadcasting over the past 60
years: how low power FM helped non-commercial radio survive and grow
when little money was available, and then, when the government finally
endorsed a system of public radio in the United States, these newly funded
non-commercial broadcasters pressured the FCC to do away with the low
In a day and age when both the commercial and public broadcasters have
become bigger and more centralized, it is important not to forget that the
'little' broadcaster was once a part of the radio mix and that even when no
longer legal, the needs and interests for this broadcaster have not gone away.
With developments in the communications marketplace aimed primarily at
the more affluent sectors of the population (McChesney, 1993) there has been
increasing interest in low power broadcasting that can serve local and often
ignored populations (Cockburn, 1995). By investigating the history of this type
of broadcasting, I hope to lend a greater understanding to why we have the
current non-commercial radio system how prohibitions against low power
broadcasting ignore some of the great advantages of radio technology.
In The Invisible Medium Lewis and Booth (1990) point out the unique
and powerful aspects of radio and the absence of scholarly studies of it. They
call for more research into "why we have the radio we do, [and] what radio
we could have if things were different" (p. xiii). Similarly, McChesney (1993)
talks about how the "other aspects of United States broadcasting history are
relegated to the margins, which is necessary to maintain the untenable
"immaculate conception" notions of the origins of commercial broadcasting"
(p. 258). This same idea is true of the current non-commercial radio system in
the United States. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National
Public Radio often are thought of as saviors of non-commercial broadcasting.
Most of the histories of non-commercial radio in the United States
acknowledge the broadcasters who existed before NPR (Collins, 1993; Looker,
1995). But they either downplay these broadcaster's role in presenting a local
and inexpensive alternative to commercial broadcasting or they portray these
stations as a foundation for NPR (Kosof, 1995). In doing so they encourage
the thinking that a national system of non-commercial broadcasting is the
only alternative to commercial broadcasting.
Lewis and Booth (1990) write about how the founding myths in
broadcasting are used to justify the existing system. They see a myth for each
type of system: "commercial broadcasting draws on notions of individualism
and free enterprise; community radio harks back to a 'community' in which
mutual help and solidarity were proof against the abrasions of the outside
world; and public broadcasting" is entrusted to "professionals who diagnosed
and interpreted the needs of listeners" (p. 1). Although the public
broadcasting that Lewis and Booth focus on is the BBC, the analogy can be
made to today's public radio in the United States where, in many cases,
government funding is dependent on the number of professionals employed
by the radio station.
Radio broadcasting in the United States is a multi-billion dollar industry
that has undergone drastic changes in the past 15 years due to government
deregulation (Ditingo, 1995). A recent study called radio a "microcosm of late
twentieth-century corporate America itself - a corporate America governed by
consolidation - mergers, acquisitions - and specialization"(Ditingo, 1995 p.
These changes have resulted in tremendous profits for commercial
broadcasters and increased ratings for non-commercial broadcasters as
listeners search for some substance on the radio dial (Turner, 1995). What has
been left out in these changes is the small, local community broadcasters who
take advantage of the inexpensive nature of radio broadcasting. If allowed,
individuals and small non-profit groups can run a station and serve a
community at extremely low costs when compared to other electronic media.
These are the efforts taken by today's radio resistors. These are individuals
and groups who are setting up illegal low power stations in places as diverse
as a housing project in Illinois and a storefront cultural center in a small
town along California's coast (Ciaffardini, 1996). They are not only serving
audiences that the large broadcasters ignore, they are reminding people of the
inexpensive nature of radio broadcasting. This is also the story of some of the
broadcasters in the past 80 years.
McClendon (1987) points out "it was in the laboratories and experimental
stations of college and universities in the 1910s that AM radio got its start"
(p.191). Some of the earliest developments in broadcast programming
occurred at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Kansas and
Cornell University (Collins, 1993; Fornatale and Mills, 1980). From 1920 until
1936, the federal government licensed 202 AM broadcast stations to
educational institutions. Programming on these stations was primarily
educational and since these stations also were non-commercial, the two terms
became intertwined (Brant, 1981).
These educators used radio as a tool for teaching, institutions like the
University of Nebraska charged fees for courses taught by radio (Fornatale and
Mills, 1980). But the heyday of this type of broadcasting was short-lived. By
1937 only 38 educational stations were still on the air (Brant, 1981).
McChesney (1993) has documented the struggles they faced in Washington as
the commercial broadcasters lobbied strongly against any type of system that
allowed for "a significant portion of the ether set aside for non-commercial
and nonprofit utilization" (p.3). But it was not just in the legislation that
these broadcasters lost out. Brant (1981) writes that in an environment of
limited spectrum space:
the educational station was fair game when looking for a frequency to
repossess. Many of these non-commercial stations were forced to share
time on the same frequency with a commercial station. In most cases the
educational station had the frequency first but was commandeered by the
commercial station.... many colleges gave up their stations. The
paperwork was too much to bear (p 16).
Many schools lacked the funds to fight, as they were overwhelmed by the
industry (Fortantale and Mills, 1980).
The loss of this fight had profound effects on broadcasting, as the United
States organized a capitalist media system (McChesney, 1993). Yet the non-
commercial broadcaster was able to find a place in the new FM broadcast
technology developed by Edwin H. Armstrong. Almost from its inception,
FM was looked upon by educators as a way to expand the system of
educational broadcasting. The presence of the National Association of
Educational Broadcasters at the FCC's 1940 hearings contributed to the
reservation of five educational non-commercial channels of the 40 channels
on the FM band of 42 - 50 megacycles (Brant, 1981). By 1941 there were seven
educational FM stations on the air. In 1945 the FCC, under pressure from
David Sarnoff's Radio Corporation of America, moved FM to new
frequencies from 88 to 108 megacycles. Though this was a problem for the few
educational FMs already on the air and a major setback for Armstrong's
commercial stations, it was an opportunity for educators to have a bigger slice
of the pie. The FCC allocated 20 of the 100 frequencies for non-commercial
FM stations (Blakely, 1979). These decisions were the first positive actions by
the government regarding educational non-commercial broadcasting.
Unfortunately these decisions involved FM, a technology that at that time
much of the media industry thought a distraction to the industry's primary
goal: the development of television.
The birth of low power
Since many colleges and universities had spent much time and money on
AM radio only to lose out in the end, something needed to be done to attract
educators to the new FM technology. They were not about to spend a lot of
time and money on radio only to be pushed out by large broadcasters. Some
broadcasters used one of the unique features of radio, its relatively
inexpensive nature to operate, to encourage colleges to adopt FM
broadcasting. Syracuse University was given temporary authority by the FCC
to operate a station at 2.5 watts. After a few months of operation it was given
a permanent license and the call letters WAER (Brant, 1981). The FCC gave
full approval to the operation of 10-watt stations on August 18, 1948; the
previous minimum requirement had been 250 watts (FCC 48-1948). The goal
was to assist colleges financially by allowing them to start low-cost
operations, with the hope that local interest in the station would encourage
colleges and universities to boost their power (Lewis and Booth, 1990).
This small step helped educational broadcasting in a large way. Blakely
(1979) tells the story of how these new FM stations were used as a positive
example during the 1951 congressional hearing regarding the reservation of
television channels for educational broadcasting. The director of research for
the National Association of Broadcasters, Kenneth Baker, had cited the poor
broadcasting record that educators had in both AM and FM radio, calling
them a "dismal failure" (p. 24). He compared the numbers of new
commercial FM stations with the small number of educational FMs, even
though there were channels reserved for educators. Blakely recounts how
FCC Commissioner Freida Hennock thoroughly discredited Baker's
testimony regarding the "relatively few" educational FM stations by pointing
out how he omitted about eighty 10-watt stations. This interchange helped in
the fight for reserved channels for educational television.
While the allowances for low power did encourage many colleges to start
FM stations, there was little encouragement to move up in wattage. By 1969
there were 384 FM and 28 AM college stations (Lewis and Booth, 1990). The
majority of the FM stations were 10-watts. The lack of interest by the
public was mostly due to the lackadaisical attitude of the FCC. For years it
allowed commercial broadcasters to simulcast their AM programming on
their FM stations. It was not until the introduction of FM stereo in 1961 and
the implementation of non-duplication rules in 1967, that listeners had a
strong reason to turn to FM. They could now find an alternative to the
programming on AM. The anti-simulcasting rule, fought so hard by the
industry that the deadline for compliance was put off for 18 months
(Fornatale and Mills), is a good example of how government regulation can
help an industry grow. Once commercial broadcasters were forced to develop
their airwaves, FM radio showed great audience growth. In the meantime,
the only interesting developments for non-commercial radio occurred
outside of the educational institutions.
In May of 1948 the FCC granted the first non-commercial license to an
organization that was not affiliated with an educational or religious
institution. When Lewis Hill and the Pacifica Foundation received a license
for KPFA in Berkeley it "set a precedent for more noninstitutional stations to
be licensed" (Fornatale and Mills, 1980, p. 171). Much has been written about
the growth of Pacifica with stations in New York, Los Angeles and Houston
(McClendon, 1987; Fornatale and Mills, 1980; Lewis and Booth, 1990). The
Pacifica stations showed how broadcasters could serve their communities
with real alternative programming during the red scare of the 1950s, and the
civil rights and Vietnam war years in the 1960s. Beyond the important
programming that the Pacifica stations broadcast during these times, they
helped to establish a new type of radio: community radio.
Lewis and Booth (1990) write that the community type of radio emerged in
explicit contrast to the United States commercial and the B.B.C. public service
models of radio. They believe that the key difference is "that, while the
commercial and public service models both treat listeners as objects, to be
captive for advertisers or improved and informed, community radio aspires
to treat its listeners as subjects and participants." (p. 8).
The Pacifica stations established the idea that listener supported radio
could survive. The programming was a mix of alternative news, left-wing
commentary, and shows produced by an eclectic mix of interest groups.
Pacifica had problems with pressure from the federal government, infighting
among the different groups and even bombings (when trying to build the
Houston station). These stations were not owned by the community, but by
the Pacifica foundation. Even though they were not true community
stations, they still set an example for other broadcasters.
The person who took the next step in developing non-commercial radio
was Lorenzo Milam. After working at Pacifica's KPFA, he started KRAB in
Seattle in 1962 (Fornatale and Mills, 1980). Milam's goal was to make true
community radio, a place where people could "squeeze some of the art back
into radio, ... for the poor and the dispossessed to get back on the air, to
chance to speak and be heard outside the next room, the next block" (Milam,
1975). In addition to Seattle, he helped start stations in Portland, St. Louis,
Gatos, California, and Dallas. Though none of these stations had long-term
success, they proved that community radio was possible on the
underdeveloped non-commercial end of the FM dial. Milam's other legacy
was publishing "A handbook on starting a radio station for the community"
called Sex and Broadcasting first published in 1971. The book is a creative
patchwork of radio criticism, instructions for dealing with the FCC,
programming ideas and excerpts from program guides from some of the
stations Milam had developed.
Sex and Broadcasting helped inspire others to try and start community
stations many of which are still on the air today. There were enough people
interested in the idea by 1975 that a group of them met to help organize the
National Federation of Community Broadcasters, with 12 member stations
(Fornatale and Mills, 1980). Four years later they had 35 stations on the air.
the 1980s they grew to 70 members, with an eclectic mix of what was possible
to do at the low end of the FM dial. But these were not the only
developments concerning non-commercial radio.
In the early and mid-1960s stations like WBFO at the University of Buffalo
and WRVR, run by the Riverside Church in New York City, started to air a
mix of educational, arts, news and public affairs programming that helped
define the difference between what educational radio was and what public
radio could be (Collins, 1993). At the same time the Carnegie Commission on
Educational Television was building a framework for public television in the
United States. Initially plans for public radio were not a part of this effort.
Collins gives President Johnson, who had a background in radio (having
made money in commercial radio in Texas), credit for insisting that radio be
added to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Fornatale and Mills (1980) claim
that "only at the insistence of Jerrold Sandler, head of National Educational
Radio, were the words "or radio" included in the act" (p. 175).
The Act created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the funding body
for public television and radio. The greatest impact that the CPB has had on
the structure of non-commercial radio in the United States came with the
standards it set for stations to obtain federal funding. These were the
minimum criteria required:
- Stations had to broadcast at least 18 hours per day, 365 days per year.
- Stations had to maintain a full-time professional staff of at least five and
have an operating budget of at least $80,000 annually.
- AM stations had to be at least 250 watts, FM at least 3,000.
- Stations had to have adequate facilities to provide for local program
production and origination.
- stations had to broadcast programs of good quality serving demonstrated
community needs of an educational, cultural or informational nature
intended for a general audience ( Fornatale and Mills, 1980, p. 176).
These standards excluded the vast majority of non-commercial stations on
the air at the time. Only 25 of the 450 non-commercial stations on the air at
the time had more that one full-time professional (McClendon, 1987). This
was CPB's way to set up a more central, professional, nationwide network of
public stations. McClendon calls it a "carrot and stick" approach to encourage
stations to move up in power and hire staff. It was a tradeoff that had critics
beyond the affected stations. Barlow (1988) points out how National Public
Radio provided regular news and public affair programming, training and
money and in return "the educational stations adopted a fairly cautious
approach to program content and community access, becoming professional,
and in most cases elitist, operations with high-brow cultural formats that
were tightly controlled from the top down" (p.91).
These changes and policies constitute the first step in eliminating the
small stations that had been the central part of non-commercial FM radio for
20 years. In some ways they can be considered a positive approach, since there
were financial rewards for stations that changed to met the CPB criteria. The
next moves in the 1970s were not so beneficent for low power radio.
The end of 10-watts
The expectations engendered by legislation and funding at the national
level were that "public broadcasting should reach more people, address more
interests, and generally elevate the quality of electronic media discourse"
(Rowland, 1993, p. 161). For those who wanted to move in this direction the
low power stations stood in the way. Since their birth in 1948 the number of
low power stations had grown slowly and steadily. Many were training
grounds for students working under faculty advisors.
Some college used 10-watt stations to serve both their students and the
local community. By the mid 1970's 10-watt licenses were the only avenue
for radio broadcasting available to colleges like CCNY, Kingsborough
Community and the College of Staten Island, in a congested media market
like New York City. While there were more than 70 radio stations in the
metropolitan area, there were none licensed for Harlem, lower Brooklyn, or
In some cases, 10-watt licenses were the way that community broadcasters
got their start. WRFG a 10-watt station in Atlanta was staffed by white and
black activists once affiliated with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee and the Students for a Democratic Society. Situated in a low-
income neighborhood, its programming was a mix of music, news and public
affairs that would appeal to both black and white listeners. The station went
off the air for a time in the mid-1970s, due to internal divisions "exacerbated
by an undercover agent's act of provocation" (Barlow, 1993, p. 249). Even
with its problems, WRFG serves as another example of how the low costs of
10-watt operations allowed for a type of radio station that others were not
Milam tells what it was like for community broadcasters in the early 1970s:
"for the first time since the great wild early days of AM radio, back in the
1920s before the ogres took over our precious Aether [sic], radio operations
have become available to anyone who might have that dreadful need to
communicate" (p.20). Unfortunately, by the end of the 1970s there was not
enough spectrum space to go around.
As the FM dial started to fill up with both low and higher power stations,
pressure from National Public Radio stations started to build for the FCC to
take some action to try to solve the problem of spectrum space. This was first
seen in FCC Docket No. 19816, Ascertainment of Community Problems by
Non-commercial Educational Broadcast Applicants, adopted July 30, 1975.
Ascertainment was a procedure that all commercial stations had to do before
the FCC would renew a station's license. It concerned stations'
"responsibilities and obligations to determine the problems and needs of their
communities and to program in such a way as to meet their needs" (FCC
Docket No. 19816 p. 2). Commercial stations were required to determine
demographic information of their city of license, interview community
leaders, and survey the public to generate the list of the problems and needs.
They then had to show how their station's programming would deal with
these problems. Until 1975, non-commercial stations were explicitly excluded
from these requirements because "given the reservation of channels for
specialized kinds of programming, educational stations manifestly must be
treated differently than commercial stations" (ibid., p 3). The 1975
rulemaking was a statement by the FCC that it would no longer look at non-
commercial stations as specialized. The commission decided these stations
could no longer program for specific communities only. These stations were
now going to be held responsible for serving their community of license
through formal ascertainment procedures.
For the first time the FCC, in its rulemaking questioned whether there
should be a distinction between the 10-watt station and other non-
commercial licensees. The Commission decided to exempt 10-watt stations
for the following reasons: their limited power might not allow them to cover
even their entire community; the Commission viewed these stations as
primarily designed to serve individuals connected with educational
institutions; and part of the function of these stations was to serve as a
training ground for broadcast personnel. The FCC also noted that " 10-watt
stations are not eligible for CPB grants, which are backed , in part, by federal
funds will continue to be ineligible even under the pending long-range
financing legislation" (FCC Docket No. 19816, p. 12). The last note is rather
strange to include in its reasoning, except that it gives notice that the FCC
going to start letting the national public broadcasting agencies outline what
non-commercial radio should be.
While the FCC did not precisely define the role of non-commercial
educational stations, something it had yet to do, this rulemaking did show
the direction in which it was headed. It included a note that it was reviewing
its policy in regard to 10-watt stations. It stated that it had "received a
for rulemaking from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting requesting
amendments to our non-commercial FM broadcast rules" (FCC Docket No.
19816, p. 13). The public broadcasters were starting to make a move on the
low power stations.
It was not just the new public broadcasters who pushed for an end to the
10-watters. According to Forantale and Mills (1980), NPR was joined by the
National Federation of Community Broadcasters against the approximately
600 10-watt stations on the air:
NPR wants them out of the way in order to fill out its network and reach
100 percent of the population. The NFCB, even though some of its
members are 10-watters, wants them out of the way, too. It feels the
spectrum space could be better used. (p. 180).
In the name of efficient use of the airwaves, the community broadcasters
joined NPR in moving non-commercial radio away from a mix of small and
larger stations to one where medium and large local stations could both serve
their communities and be networked to provide a national public radio
These moves by NPR caused a tremendous amount of resentment from
the college stations. They saw the last player into the game looking to change
the rules. According to Jeff Tellis, former president of the Intercollegiate
Broadcasting System, NPR didn't understand the college radio stations: "They
thought these were sandboxes and kids were playing and were not taking it
very seriously" (Tellis interview, 1995).
On June 7, 1978, in Docket No. 20735, Changes in the rules relating to non-
commercial educational FM broadcast stations, the FCC effectively did away
with low power FM. The opening paragraph of the ruling states that it was
stimulated by a petition from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting
"relating to efficient use of the FM radio channels set aside for non-
commercial educational purposes." (p. 1). CPB was asking for a specific
channel of assignments similar to what commercial radio had. This is where
each community was assigned channel(s) on the spectrum. It could be
considered more efficient and fair because up until that time assignments
were treated on a demand basis, with no regard for the impact of future
assignment needs. Wanting more time to deliberate and needing first to act
on the 10-watt issue, the FCC decided not to act on the idea of a table of
assignments for non-commercial FM. Instead, the rulemaking centered on
the issue of 10-watt stations.
As is usual with rulemakings, the FCC included comments filed by some
of the interested parties. One filer in favor explained that 10-watt stations
allow starting a station on a small scale and then, after public acceptance, the
station can move up in power to extend its coverage and that "closing the
door on future 10-watt stations was seen as putting a halt to this process" (FCC
Docket No. 20735, p. 11). In response to this, the FCC noted that "40% of the
stations that began as ten watts sought or obtained increased facilities, with
70% to then at least reach the equivalent of Class A maximum facilities"
(ibid., p. 12). These commission figures show the positive effect of allowances
for low power.
Another interesting comment dealt with CPB contention that 10-watt
stations cluttered the dial, preventing public stations from going on or
increasing power. This party said that the answer was for the CPB to drop its
restrictions on funding low power stations and give funding to all non-
commercial stations. CPB's answer to this was that it would be "one of the
least effective ways of making its service available" (FCC Docket No. 20735, p.
18). The CPB was out to remake non-commercial radio, and this apparently
did not include the smallest broadcaster.
The argument of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters was
that, were it not for existing 10-watt stations, "at least 40-45 new high-power
non-commercial FM stations in the top 100 markets could be established and
that significant power increases could be obtained for another 25-30 stations"
(FCC Docket No. 20735, p. 19). It felt that existing 10-watt stations could be
accommodated by moving to unused portions of the commercial dial or by a
move up in power on the non-commercial part of the spectrum. The NFCB
did not accept the financial argument of 10-watts being a stepping stone to
better facilities, claiming that it was not much more expensive to build a
higher power station.
The one group to fight for the 10-watt stations was the Intercollegiate
Broadcasting System. This organization of over 600 stations, almost half of
which were 10-watts, had filed comments in favor of 10-watt stations in both
the 1975 and 1978 rulemakings. Here it did not succeed, as the FCC decided to
relegate 10-watt stations to a secondary status where they could not cause
interference to a higher power station and they themselves would not be
protected from interference from other stations. The 10-watters could move
to the commercial part of the spectrum if space allowed. The FCC was not
terminating these stations, but it was requiring them to move to space where
they would not block the expansion of other non-commercial stations. The
rulemaking did allow for existing 10-watt stations to exempt themselves from
the new rule by increasing their facilities to the minimum Class A level of
100 watts. In order to avoid disruption, the FCC gave stations 18 months to
file the applications necessary for this move. This part of the rulemaking was
to have a profound effect on the non-commercial spectrum.
The expectations of some observers were that the college broadcasters
would go away. Fortantale and Mills (1980) claimed: "the bottom line is that
the 10-watters seem to have lost the war. Their numbers will decrease, and
more powerful public radio stations will increase" (p. 181). Instead the
unexpected occurred. Two-thirds of the 10-watt stations took advantage of the
provisions allowing for an increase to 100 watts. According to Tellis, the FCC
rulemaking had a positive impact:
A lot of them (10-watt stations) needed that kick in the pants because they
had become complacent about it and they needed something to get them
off the dime and it spurred a lot of them to grow up and to serve a wider
audience than just a college campus (interview, 1995).
What was expected to be more space on the dial ended up being more
college stations at 100 watts, now fully protected against interference from
other stations. NPR never got the extra room it thought it was going to get.
For the college broadcasters: " we lost the battle but won the war" and
"eventually it turned out for the best" (ibid.).
While this episode in the late 1970s may have turned to the advantage of
college broadcasters, it all but eliminated the low power stations. Those that
did not go up in power either moved to the commercial band, if there was
space, or stayed at 10 watts, sometimes having to move to another part of the
non-commercial band if a public station went up in power. At the same time
that the 10-watt stations were changing, the concept of an affordable, entry
level broadcast facility disappeared. The end of these small operations also
gave a hint of what was to occur in radio in the next decade.
Public radio underwent tremendous growth. Starting with 80 stations, by
1990 CPB supported more than 300 stations that were able to reach 85 percent
of the country. Public radio was one of the first operations to build a
distribution system. A public radio report bragged, "Stations have developed
full-service schedules, built professional staffs and volunteer support, and
raised $225 million in nonfederal funds that, with $60 million in federal
support, fuels their efforts"(Public radio, 1990, p. 5 ). The report pointed
how from 1979 to 1989 the number of CPB-supported stations grew by 58
percent while the number of listeners rose by 271 percent. But there was
criticism for the way that they carried out these efforts. Lewis and Booth
(1990) quote one community broadcaster criticizing NPR for "more concern
for sizable budget than service to the community, more attention to
professionalism than participation of the public, more emphasis on the
power of a station's signal than responsibility to community needs"(p.120).
Like the rest of broadcasting in the Reagan years, the language of the
marketplace infected public radio. Some of this was due to the threats of
funding cuts, as public broadcasters had to increase audience numbers for
both political support and as a base for funding donations (Wicklein, 1986).
This emphasis on audience growth went against what had been a
fundamental tenet of non-commercial broadcasting, serving the public. As
Robert Blakely (1979), a former member of the Ford Foundation and the
National Association of Educational Broadcasters, put it in 1979:
The goal of most commercial broadcasters is not to entertain or inform but
to attract the largest audience possible and to sell... The educational
component of our total national broadcasting service, however has but a
single purpose - to serve the public interest. This service can treat
audiences as receptive, interested persons, not potential customers, and
can acknowledge their needs" (p. xii).
While public broadcasting in the 1980s did not abandon its goal of serving
the public interest, it paid much more interest to audience demographics,
wants and needs. There was formation by the large non-commercial stations
of the Public Radio Expansion Task Force. One of the major
recommendations of this group was that public stations should be more
consistent with programs that "appeal to the same kind of people all the
time" (Public radio, p. 15) Instead of having an eclectic program mix within a
station, there should be "different kind of stations that serve different kinds
of listeners in a consistent fashion" (ibid.).
Many of these changes in public radio were precipitated by the almost total
deregulation of commercial radio in the 1980s. Formal ascertainment
requirements, stipulations for news and public affairs, and limits on the
number of commercials stations could air were all eliminated. Probably the
biggest change for commercial radio was the end of the three year "anti-
trafficking" rule which governed the buying and selling of radio stations.
They could now be bought and sold as a tradable commodity. Total sale of
commercial radio stations went from $603 million in 1982 to $3.35 billion in
1988 (Ditingo, 1995.) Individual licenses that were selling for $5 million in
the early 1980s went for as much as $80 million by the end of the decade.
Station programming moved from having some commitment to public
service to one where the only motivation was to make the station more
marketable. This left an opening that public radio was poised to fill.
With its highly regarded news and information programming such as All
Things Considered and Morning Edition and the most advanced satellite
distribution system in radio, NPR was able to fill the void left by commercial
deregulation. By the end of the 1980s these programs were being compared to
the New York Times as the "radio broadcast of record" (Porter, 1990 p. 30). It
was the type of quality news programming that had not been heard in the
United States since the days of Edward R. Murrow. But this emphasis on
national and international news programming and tailoring stations to
demographic interests had its downside. By the mid-1990s NPR was dropping
quality programs that were of interest to ethnic minorities, like Afropop and
Horizons, in order to continue to fund the more highly rated and listener-
contribution-attracting programs like All Things Considered. Thomas
Looker, a former NPR producer, in his 1995 book The Sound and the Story
states one of the fundamental questions of the current debate: "Should public
radio build the largest possible audience by catering to current American
listening habits, or should public radio offer alternative programming that
may be unfamiliar and challenging to many listeners?" (p.405) Public radio in
the 1990s has so far looked to address the first part of this question. As it
a renewed interest in low power radio has emerged.
The new low powers
The concept of illegal broadcasting or pirate radio goes back many years. It
had a profound effect on radio in England during the 1960s. There Radio
Caroline broadcast from a ship in international waters off the coast of
England. The major impetus for these broadcasts was the conservative
nature of the BBC and the tight relationships between the few programmers
of pop music and certain record companies. There was a void in radio that
these pirates were out to fill (Chapman, 1992). A similar void can be found in
radio in the United States in the 1990s. Commercial radio stations are treated
as commodities to be bought and sold. Public radio operates more and more
on a national level. Community radio stations, including the Pacifica
stations, are still trying to serve their purpose but often get caught up in
internal squabbles (Radio Resistors Bulletin, 1995 ), and there is no room left
on the spectrum for anyone new.
Low power or micropower broadcasters are trying to push their way into
this mix. Many of them cite M'Banna Kantako as their inspiration
(Ciaffardini, 1996). He has been broadcasting his Black Liberation Radio for a
few years from his apartment in Springfield, Illinois. He broadcasts "his own
version of the news, reggae and rap music on a brazenly illegal signal on less
than one watt of power" (Harrision, 1990). Stephen Dunifer, the leader of the
loosely organized radio resistance movement, speaks of him as someone who
is performing a much-needed service: "He is serving his community which is
a housing project, he's providing a service to the community and the
community is totally involved. Younger people - 10, 12, 14 years of age are
being trained to do radio" (Spin, 1994). Dunifer and other low power
broadcasters make every effort to broadcast on unused parts of the FM
spectrum in order to avoid interfering with other radio stations.
Programming is determined solely by the volunteer broadcasters so one is
never sure what he or she is going to hear. Dunifer also sells do-it-yourself
transmitter kits so that others can start their own stations (Wired, 1995).
In the Fall of 1993 the FCC issued a $20,000 fine to Dunifer for his
broadcasts. When he filed an appeal the FCC sought an injunction to stop the
broadcasts. In January 1995 Federal District Judge Claudia Wilken rejected the
FCC arguments that Dunifer would cause interference chaos (Cockburn, 1995).
The case is still dragging on, with Dunifer being aided by the National
Lawyers Guild Committee on Democratic Communication. Peter Franck, a
representative of the group, ties the issues involved to the history and
current state of broadcasting in the United States.:
Since radio and television were invented the issue has been how to
ensure that the airwaves are used in the public interest, and that they are a
tool of and for democracy. These developments (the latest mergers and
the ruling in the Dunifer case) all prove that the 60 year experiment with
government regulation of corporate media is a failure. A relatively weak
government can't and won't compel the commercial media to do
anything that weakens their profits. Only media like micro radio, free of
excessive regulation, cheap, owned by people who broadcast and by their
communities can use the airwaves in the spirit of the First Amendment.
(Radio Resistor's Bulletin #12).
The history of government regulation of broadcasting does not hold much
hope for the new low power broadcasters. The long-standing case for Federal
regulations in order to control interference and a track record of supporting
those with the most political strength both show that the efforts for the re-
establishment of low power broadcasting most likely will fail. The
deregulation of the communications industry has encouraged a more highly
concentrated marketplace system. It has not only ignored the small
broadcasters, it has helped destroy them. McChesney predicts that the current
communication revolution "will be aimed primarily at the more affluent
sectors of the population" with the result that it "will probably enhance
inequality in the population" (1993, p. 259).
Both the history of low power radio and the current activities of the radio
resistors show that there are alternatives to the marketplace system. These
broadcasters have taken advantage of radio's ability to adapt and change. This
ability has allowed it to not only survive but prosper over the years.
Unfortunately, one of radio's greatest strengths, its capacity as an inexpensive
way to broadcast, has been lost on those who control it.
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