Not too long ago, I complained in this space about the migration of rural radio services to the cities in search of bigger advertising bucks, and named the Federal Communications Commission as an accessory. Of course, the FCC is just doing what it's told, and what it's told comes to us no thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which, apart from its preposterous whining about "indecency", basically ordered the rich to get richer, a mandate on par with requiring dampness in the Marianas Trench.

Congress, to be sure, pays no more attention to the Law of Unintended Consequences than does the Executive branch, so when someone actually sat down and discovered that corporations were acquiring radio stations left and right — in April, the FCC gave its blessing to a merger of the second-largest group owner with the third-largest, provided the combined company sell off 18 of its over 400 stations to, uh, "preserve competition" — well, this didn't sit well with the usual crowd of ersatz populists, and so the FCC concocted something called Low Power FM Service, designed to fill in those infinitesimal gaps between big stations with little stations of 1000 watts or less, which, in the Commission's words, would open "new opportunities for community-oriented radio broadcasting, foster opportunities for new radio broadcast ownership and promote additional diversity in radio voices and program services, while protecting the integrity of the spectrum."

Perhaps needless to say, the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents a lot of those big stations, was livid. The NAB issued a nunber of ukases, collected on their Web site under the general heading "Pirate Radio", which leaves no doubt as to where the NAB stands on the FCC's scheme. Edward O. Fritts, top man at NAB, says this: "At a time when spectrum used for radio stations is overly congested, it would be folly to authorize hundreds of additional low-power stations that would surely cause additional interference."

Mr Fritts is right about one thing: if there were hundreds of additional stations, there would be vastly greater opportunities for stations to get in the way of each other's signals. The laws of physics at work. And Mr Fritts might have noted, though he didn't, that one-fifth of the FM band — 88.1 through 91.9 MHz — is already reserved for noncommercial stations, and that segment of spectrum is no less congested than the commercial segment.

So what's the answer? Expand the FM band? There's no room, unless the FCC relocates the entire band — which they did once before, in 1945, and aren't likely to do again. Open up AM instead? AM is just as crowded as FM, and is subject to all manner of atmospheric phenomena — and takers for frequencies above 1600 kHz have been conspicuous by their rarity, since not all receivers can pick them up. The Internet? Not until PCs or something very like PCs become as ubiquitous as, well, radios. The only semi-sure solution is for Congress to say "We screwed up" and come up with some legislation that will undo the media-ownership concentration wrought by the Telecom Act. You'll have a better chance of seeing John Paul II doing the Macarena.

The Vent

#156
9 July 1999

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