Cantwell moves to protect educational stations

by ,

ny Jonathan Lawson

Senator Maria Cantwell today announced proposed legislation which would protect a handful of educational radio stations from the danger of having their frequencies snatched by larger commercial or public radio stations. Cantwell spoke before an audience of teenagers at Mercer Island High School, where student-run station X104.5 (KMIH) is threatened by Oregon station KMCQ's bid to move into the Seattle market.

KMIH broadcasts under an educational Class-D�broadcasting license--a type of license which the FCC no longer issues. Most of these stations operate at very low power, just enough to cover the neighborhood around a high school. But about a dozen so-called super-powered� Class D stations can reach a larger audience (KMIH claims an audience of about 35,000). Despite their reach, however, stations like KMIH have low standing or no standing in disputes with larger stations over access to the airwaves.

Cantwell's bill would protect these stations by upgrading their license status to Class A, giving them the same security enjoyed by larger stations.

In her comments at Mercer Island High, Cantwell defended the public interest value of educational stations like KMIH, in the context of a radio landscape where making money is often the dominant concern. "Having access to diverse opinions and viewpoints is also important," Cantwell said. "Media diversity is important to all of us."


Cantwell's bill would upgrade the status of "super-powered" Class D FM stations to Class A radio stations. These stations are all licensed to educational institutions and are strong supporters of public interest broadcasting. The purpose of this change is to preserve these stations and keep them from being encroached upon by Class A stations.

Under current regulations, Class A stations may request that the FCC shift their signals into spectrum areas where Class D stations are present. A Class D station has no grounds to oppose such moves or to protest the interference caused by Class A stations. The FCC does not currently grant such stations protected status. Class D stations generally operate at 10 watts or less power.

However, at least eleven "super-powered" Class D stations exist. Some of these stations have frequencies outside the reserved educational area on the FM band. These stations are vulnerable to encroachment by commercial broadcasters which may want their frequencies. Last year, one Class D station in Pennsylvania that had served the community at a local high school for 50 years was forced off the air when a commercial broadcaster successfully petitioned the FCC for a frequency change. Another Class D station serving a community in New Jersey for 25 years was also forced off the air with the same FCC decision.

In Washington state, KMIH-FM at Mercer Island High School faces an encroachment battle. KMIH has served the Seattle area for 34 years with coverage of community events, high school sports, and music programming. KMCQ-FM a commercial broadcaster in The Dalles, Oregon has petitioned the FCC to relocate its signal to the Seattle area on the same frequency as KMIH. KDUX-FM of Aberdeen, Washington has also requested the FCC allow a move closer to Seattle for the same frequency zone 104.5 FM. These commercial broadcasters threaten KMIH's signal.

The Cantwell proposal moves qualifying "super-powered" Class D stations on the FM band into the Class A designation. Such stations should have been grandfathered�into such a protective status when the FCC changed course on lower powered FM educational stations in the late 1970s. With radio spectrum more valuable than ever, a move to protect educational stations that practice public service broadcasting is long overdue. High schools and colleges which use the Class D stations as training grounds also need protection from broadcasting firms more concerned with the commercial aspects of the broadcast spectrum. Super-powered Class D stations would be defined as those with a (50/50) 60 dBu service contour that equals or exceeds 6 kilometers. This is equal to the signal contour of the lowest powered Class A stations.

Other super-powered Class D stations include: WPTS-FM (at 92.1) at the University of Pittsburgh; WUAG-FM (at 103.1) at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro; WARY-FM (at 88.1) at Westchester Community College in New York; WSIA-FM (at 88.9) at the College of Staten Island; and WCEB-FM (at 91.9) at Corning Community College in New York.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey