The Fight for the Dial
Will low-power FM translate in Albuquerque?
To give Dixon, N.M., a radio station, Clark Case dug up about $20,000.
Clear Channel spends more. "To put a good, solid FM, one single FM radio station, on the air, it's a good $3 million to $4 million investment depending on what you do in your studios and the type of equipment you get. And that's before you even open a door," says Chuck Hammond, general manager of Clear Channel Radio Albuquerque.
Case, the station manager of KLDK 96.5 in Dixon, says that $20,000 covered the bill for all his equipment and the operations costs of the first year. He doubts his low-power FM, which he runs in the town’s library, will spend $6,000 in 2008.
Hammond saw his company spend half a million to make its six FMs digital and drop another couple hundred thousand to put a generator on Sandia Peak so Clear Channel can broadcast if the city's power goes down.
Before 2000, if you wanted real estate on the FM dial, you were probably looking at a financial commitment like Clear Channel's. Or, at the other extreme, you might run a pirate station, changing locations every broadcast and sending your small signal through a transmitter you built in your garage.
Pirate stations proliferated in the face of rampant media consolidation in the late ’90s. At the turn of the last century, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created a third choice and offered up licenses for low-power FM (LPFM) stations.
LPFMs run through 10-watt to 100-watt transmitters. A low-power FM range usually extends around 3.5 miles, though Case estimates his 100-watt Dixon project reaches a 10-mile radius.
The Local Community Radio Act making its way through Congress in the last six months could increase the number of stations like Case's and put them on the dial in urban markets, including Albuquerque's. But that's something Hammond and other national broadcasters don't want to see.
The FCC opened a series of application windows for low-power stations, and big-business radio teamed up with National Public Radio in an unexpected union. The groups expressed to Congress fears that all these little nonprofit stations would interfere with their signals. As Clear Channel's Hammond can attest, full-power stations spent thousands of dollars on signal clarity.
Rep. Heather Wilson cosponsored the Radio Preservation Act, which was passed smack-dab in the middle of the LPFM application process. The act demanded LPFMs not be allowed within three channels of a major broadcast signal. That means a low-power can only exist with three empty channels between it and a full-power station. Without that distance, there would be interference, Hammond says. "It's called crosstalk, actually. But you don't really hear the crosstalk. You hear hissing and popping sounds," he says.
Congress passed the preservation bill, which caused the dismissal of hundreds of LPFM applications. Of the 3,200 submitted to the FCC, more than 70 percent were thrown out, says Kate Blofson, a community organizer with the Prometheus Radio Project. Prometheus is a national organization founded in 1998 to fight for low-power radio.
There are 836 low-power FMs on the air today, Blofson reports, though there is only one in any of the top 50 radio markets, and it's in Columbus, Ohio. She says the FCC originally designed the LPFM program so that there would have been at least one in each of the top 50 markets, except for New York and Los Angeles.
A bill introduced to Congress last summer might bring about that original vision. The Local Community Radio Act is looking to lift some of the limitations imposed on low-power radio, including the “three empty channel” rule. There's no saying how many LPFMs could come about if the act is passed, as it depends heavily on policy decisions, but Blofson says it could add thousands to the dial across the country. New Mexico in particular is interesting to Blofson and Prometheus for reasons other than the Rep. Wilson connection. In October last year, a small full-power application window opened "and New Mexico had tons of groups applying."
Before Case got KLDK up and running, his home radio only picked up one station: KTAO 101.9 FM from Taos. Case was playing music with a group of people on a regular basis. They'd meet every couple of weeks and just jam, he says. "One night it was particularly good, and someone said, Man, it's too bad we couldn't have gotten this on the radio.” The next day, Case saw a tiny article in the Santa Fe New Mexican that said the FCC was starting to offer low-power licenses.
According to the rules, an LPFM has to be a nonprofit, educational station, though it doesn't have to exist on the educational band, which is 88.1 to 91.9. Blofson says anything you can imagine gets played on LPFMs. A stack of Cajun records from somebody's basement might make it on the air, maybe followed by a gardening show, a hot-rod show and then "Democracy Now!" "Any interest or expertise that you find latent in communities comes out in a low-power station," Blofson says.
Case talked to the Embudo Valley Library and asked if he could put its name on his application. He got a scholarship from Prometheus to attend a National Federation of Community Broadcasters convention, where he learned about all the equipment he would need. Once he got his construction permit, Case held fundraisers to get the money together for the gear. KLDK went on the air Dec. 22, 2005. With a small volunteer staff, it broadcasts 24 hours a day.
About 15 people deejay regularly on the station, with most just playing music. The librarian recorded some bedtime stories for kids. Anything posted on the billboard out in front of the library gets recorded and broadcast at regular times throughout the day. "It's a pretty open format," Case says. "The music we play when there is no live DJ is music that has been brought in by anyone in town. It's kind of a collection of the community's music."
He knows he's lucky, he says, because he wouldn't have been licensed were it not for Dixon's total lack of radio. Through the process, Case has started to love being on the radio, and he's excited by how many tune in. "I'm surprised sometimes how many people will come up and mention they heard some stupid thing we said that day," he jokes. "It's very fulfilling, because we've been successful. The radio station, if it's not essential, is at least appreciated."
Case learned a lot about the "democratization of media," he says. LPFMs would be crucial in a city like Albuquerque. "They would help the city understand itself and know what's going on in all the neighborhoods, not just the ones that have enough money to have a force in the media."
Clear Channel's Hammond says LPFMs jammed between signals would not benefit Albuquerque. "We are so over-radioed here for a market our size," he says. If you count the stations that broadcast into Albuquerque from Las Vegas, N.M., Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Belen, and the Albuquerque-based stations, you'd come up with 44. "Take a look at Tucson, which is just a little bit bigger than us. It has half the number of radio stations."
LPFMs are often used by transportation departments to transmit highway information, Hammond says. "A lot of them are religious-based, because they can get the funding to operate something like that. So, yeah, it's going to give you more diversity, I guess, but at the price of commercially viable radio stations."
DJ**** (a name she chose to protect her anonymity) has been working on a pirate radio station that broadcasts a few times a week in Albuquerque for just over a year. She's not concerned with an over-radioed city, because she says options are scarce for community voices. "We need community-run media, people within the community making our media or becoming the media rather than being so dependent on what's in the media."
Paula Williams, executive director of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, agrees that low-power FMs provide more choices to listeners. "Many of the stations we have in the market provide information that comes from corporate headquarters."
After big broadcasters and NPR cried foul over signal clarity during the creation of low-power FM service, Congress ordered the FCC to conduct a study on signal interference and find out if the three-channel distance rule was necessary. The FCC contracted with the MITRE Corporation, an independent group, to do the study. The MITRE report came back in 2003 stating LPFMs would not create interference on full-power channels.
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) released a document heavily criticizing the MITRE report and also did its own study of signal interference. The group says LPFMs surely will interfere with neighboring signals. "If our stations don't sound as good, then you're not going to listen," says Hammond. And if people don't tune in, audience numbers go down, taking advertising revenue with them.
Case says he's positive a 100-watt station won't interfere with any channels, even if they were right next door on the dial. "Our signals are tiny. The NAB and NPR really lobbied to make it restrictive, because their interest is not to get the voices of the public out there."
But in the age of the Internet, aren't there lots of methods for exposing people to a variety of ideas? Williams says, sure, but the question is really one of access. "There are lots of assumptions made as we move forward with digital information about access, that everyone can find the digital pipelines. The simple truth is, not everyone can do that. Low-power FM can reach many people that may not be able to access digital resources."
The Local Community Radio Act is making its way through Congress, though when it will be debated is not clear to anyone, including Blofson. "It moves at a pace that's totally opaque to us."