By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
In the end, the haves to which Kennard referred weren't able to abort LPFM, but they did place severe restrictions on it. The FCC under Kennard recommended what's known as a "third channel adjacent" rule, which would have let low-power FMs plant themselves as close as three dial positions away from an existing station. For example, a signal at 91.3 FM would be three clicks from both 90.7 FM and 91.9 FM. Such spacing would have allowed LPFMs to squeeze into some big cities.
Instead, Congress went with a fourth-channel-adjacent dictum pending the completion of a study it commissioned to determine if a more relaxed standard would cause interference problems. (Apparently, the numerous investigations that had already given the thumbs-up to third-channel adjacency weren't enough.) Because dial space is extremely tight in places such as this one, the maneuver effectively killed low-power FMs in nearly every major market -- hence the presence of LPFMs in Ouray, Estes Park and Salida but not in Denver, Boulder or Colorado Springs.
The situation in metro areas wouldn't improve under Powell's plan to speed up the LPFM licensing process, which is one reason Tridish is measured in his reaction. "It's a small but meaningful step in the right direction," he says, displaying more politeness than one would expect from a guy who's part of a lawsuit against the FCC. John Anderson, a Wisconsin journalist and activist who runs www.diymedia.net, an indispensable Web site devoted to low-power FMs and pirate radio, is less kind. He wonders if Powell's sudden embrace of low power might be nothing more than "a tool to parry some of the criticism he's received" for his media-consolidation jones. Firing Anderson's suspicions further is his belief that the FCC under Powell has done little to help make LPFMs more widely available, and in some ways has slowed the process.
Take the congressionally mandated study, conducted by the MITRE Corporation. Anderson says the Amherst Alliance, a pro-LPFM group of which he's a member, heard rumors earlier this year that the MITRE report had been completed. However, the FCC hadn't bothered to release it. The Alliance filed a Freedom of Information Act request intended to break the document loose, but the FCC didn't respond during the required time period. Months of back-and-forth later, Anderson reveals, "We sent a letter saying, in essence, 'This is your last chance. If we don't hear anything, we reserve the right to take court action and contact people in Congress.'" Shortly thereafter, the study turned up unannounced in a cyberspace back alley -- the electronic-comment-filing zone of the FCC's Web site, www.fcc.gov -- just in time to stave off the government's attorneys. As interpreted by Anderson, the results show that not only are third-channel-adjacent LPFMs unlikely to cause significant interference issues, but even second-adjacent stations would probably work just fine in many circumstances.
On the surface, the MITRE study would seem to open the door to many more LPFMs in rural as well as urban settings, but not so fast: Congress would still have to pass a law establishing the third-channel-adjacent model. Although Arizona Senator John McCain might be inclined to propose such legislation, as he did in 2001, his loyalties may be shifting; he voted against the Dorgan bill to kill the FCC's June guidelines. Even if McCain and like-minded colleagues step up to the plate, they'll be in for another battle with broadcast-industry lobbyists and the officials in their pocket. And on the odd chance that legislation is passed and signed by President George W. Bush despite all this, another possible obstacle is looming. Anderson has been tracking the filing of applications for broadcast translators -- devices of 250 watts or less that boost the signals of larger stations into outlying areas. In March of this year alone, an astonishing 13,000 such requests were filed, most by religious media organizations presumably trying to establish nationwide networks on the cheap. (Two groups, Radio Assist Ministry and Edgewater Broadcasting Inc. accounted for almost a third of the total.) While some of these translators won't be approved, those that get the go-ahead will further clog the radio spectrum, potentially leaving much less room for future low-power FMs.
That's a pity, because the three LPFMs referenced above have done plenty to enliven the media landscape in their respective municipalities. KREV plays programs affiliated with the United Methodist Church as well as shows like Voices of Our World, a production of the Catholic Maryknoll order. "We're trying to be ecumenical," says station head Saunders -- and this philosophy extends to general-interest music. Classical, jazz and pop from the '60s and '70s all receive their due via the hundreds of vinyl LPs that have been donated to the cause thus far, and performances by Colorado groups such as Rocky Mountain Brassworks, a band that's headlined a KREV fundraiser, are spotlighted regularly. Saunders, assisted by a slew of dedicated volunteers, also keeps the kids in mind, with a morning storytime segment (he reads books under the name "Uncle Paul") and after-school rock assembled by local students. "It's real head-banging stuff," Saunders says. "It isn't our music, really, but they talked the school-bus drivers into tuning their radios into it, so that's kind of neat."