By Michael Roberts
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In a media world that's in lust with new technology, radio seems thoroughly old-fashioned, the equivalent of a bicyclist competing in the Daytona 500. At times, though, it's still better to be Lance Armstrong than Jeff Gordon.
Just ask the pupils and staffers at Ouray High School, located in a gorgeous part of southwestern Colorado. The home of the Trojans (not those Trojans) was once limited to a Web radio station accessible at www.ourayradio.com. The outlet can be tuned in by computer users all over the planet, but, says student Catie Pitts, "We didn't get that much community involvement and not many calls or requests at all with Webcasting, because nobody knew about it." Fortunately, things turned around after the birth of KURA, a low-power FM station launched in August 2002. As the only radio signal originating from Ouray, which has a population of around 800, it immediately became an important source of news and entertainment, as well as a point of town pride. Thus far, the operation hasn't had to hold a major fundraiser, because so many folks have spontaneously offered donations or underwriting support. "It's been crazy," enthuses Pitts, KURA's music director. "Everybody in town listens to it."
KURA isn't the only Colorado enterprise to have succeeded thanks to the low-power FM (LPFM) initiative, a federal law from 2000 that allows for the creation of stations broadcasting at 100 watts or less. KREV, licensed to Estes Park's United Methodist Church and overseen by Santa Claus look-alike Paul Saunders ("Crosstown Traffic," December 13, 2001), has delivered religious and secular programming for over a year to residents of the scenic northern Colorado destination. Meanwhile, KHEN, which debuted in February, is serving the 6,000 or so individuals living in Salida, west of Pueblo. The station's eclectic blend of music and information programming is assembled with the assistance of station manager Jane Carpenter, a veteran of KGNU, Boulder's widely beloved public-radio broadcaster. "I'm a huge proponent of community radio," Carpenter says. "I believe it's vitally important for people to be able to express what they like about life, or what they're dissatisfied about. And they need access to the airwaves to do it."
Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, may be coming around to this way of thinking -- and if so, his mind's negotiated quite a U-turn. During much of 2003, Powell has been pilloried by an ideologically varied collection of observers for promoting greater media consolidation without much regard to the local voices that would doubtless be quelled as a result. Most controversial were FCC rulings handed down in June that would let a single firm own television stations that reach 45 percent of Americans (a 10 percent increase) and permit companies to hold titles to newspapers and numerous radio and/or TV properties in the same market, a concept known as cross-ownership.
In July, the U.S. House of Representatives responded to these FCC moves by voting to toss out the 45 percent provision. Last week, the Senate went even further, passing a measure sponsored by North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan to scotch all of the FCC's June changes; Dorgan's sweeping approach would even eliminate a new regulation designed to forestall the growth of radio mega-corporations, which many anti-consolidationists like. The House probably won't sign on to these provisions; Majority Leader Tom DeLay was quoted as saying, "Nice exercise, Senate. It is going nowhere. Dead on arrival." Nonetheless, the level of bipartisan activity at play indicates how unpopular Powell's reforms have become -- and legal maneuvers are apt to complicate matters further. On September 4, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia stopped implementation of FCC regs about ownership limits in response to a challenge filed by Philly's Prometheus Radio Project, whose technical director, Pete Tridish, is a nationally recognized LPFM advocate. The court's order stated that in consideration of "the magnitude of this matter and the public's interest in reaching the proper resolution, a stay is warranted."
In the face of these objections, Powell has started modifying his public remarks about consolidation. On August 18, at a conference in Aspen sponsored by the Progress & Freedom Foundation, he acknowledged the surly mood of news consumers, albeit in a somewhat defensive way. "Policy-makers should wake up," he said. "The public is concerned about the big media. Our responsibility is to channel that concern into something constructive, and the commission is going to put itself back in the leadership position -- to look at those concerns and point them in a more positive direction rather than some of the mudslinging we've seen this summer" ("The Rah Expedition," August 21). In Washington two days later, Powell put some meat on the bones of these comments, promising to expedite the processing of low-power FM applications, some of which have been lingering for years; according to the San Jose Mercury News, he called this step "an honest attempt to address the concerns raised by the public about localism during the media-ownership proceeding."
For low-power FM backers like Tridish, Powell's words came as a surprise. After all, Tridish notes, LPFM was a pet project of Powell's predecessor as FCC chairman, William Kennard, who occasionally aligned himself against powerful broadcasting lobbies with whom Powell seems to get along swimmingly. (Kennard led a Democratic majority on the five-commissioner panel; Republicans, including Powell, now hold the balance of power.) In a March 2000 speech rapping influence-peddlers who demonized LPFM, Kennard said, "This is about the haves -- the broadcast industry -- trying to prevent many have-nots -- small community and educational organizations -- from having just a little piece of the pie."