The FCC tunes into low-power radio

[Seattle Times editorial]

In the world of radio, more is better: It is better for the universe of radio listeners to have more stations broadcasting a wider variety of music and information.

In that vein, the Federal Communications Commission took important steps last week that could dramatically increase the number of low-power FM radio stations broadcasting nationwide. For a commission that has demonstrated much difficulty advocating a diversity of voices in other media, the agency made considerable progress on low-power FM stations.

Low-power FMs are stations of about 10 or 100 watts that broadcast within a 1-to-3.5-mile radius. They are run by nonprofit organizations such as religious groups, schools, community groups and municipalities and provide programming not otherwise available. A typical station of 50,000 or 100,000 watts reaches a much bigger geographic area.

Often these stations provide either an eclectic and broad range of music or public-interest programming — something the big guys cannot afford to offer.

These stations also offer a valuable local connection with a neighborhood or a part of the city or a cultural link with a group of people underserved by other stations.

The FCC last week recommended that Congress make technical changes to the rules so more low-power FMs can fit on the dial.

The pressure now moves to the U.S. House and Senate to buck the big broadcasters and approve rules that encourage more FMs to pop up and occupy frequencies on the FM dial.

The community benefits from more voices, more opinions, more overall offerings.

The FCC was more timid in another step but that, too, is important. The commission agreed to study if it should award licenses to locally operated, low-power FMs over stations fed by a more distant source with no local content.

Clearly, the rule should err in favor of local stations because that is the best way to connect with and serve the community.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are prime sponsors of legislation to make it possible to create more low-power FM stations. And their bill to create the spacing to fit more of these stations on the dial has unanimously cleared the Senate Commerce Committee.

Democracy flourishes when information comes from more sources and is dispersed to wider and more-discerning audiences.

There are roughly 800 low-power FM stations in the country today, with only one such station in a top-50 market — Richmond, Va. Listeners in other large markets ought to be able to have access to the same kind of diverse programming.

The FCC has moved in a positive decision on low-power FMs. Congress now has to step up and change the law to make important recommendations real.

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