POSITIVE DEVELOPMENTS FOR NEW PUBLIC RADIO OUTLETS AND EXISTING ONES LIKE KGNU AND KVOD/ 88.1 ARE ON THE HORIZON, IF WE ACT SOON!
We’re only two months into 2008, and for the “radio-conscious” here’s one issue in this highly-charged political year that’s still “beneath the radar”: another possible round of selling-off some of the public’s airwaves to the highest bidder. It could happen again, much like the fire sale of radio frequencies following the re-write (butchering) of the Telecommunications Act of 1994 (thanks, Uncle Newt).
Rather than have the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) -- the “guardian” of the public’s airwaves -- set fair market prices for frequencies placed on the block in ‘94, Congress pushed to allow telecommunications companies to bid for designated radio frequencies so companies could use them for cell phone and data transmission purposes. (The same mindset setting the table for this corporate feast allowed radio empires to own, in the case of Clear Channel, 12-hundred radio stations). Now, under the guise of doing something to help retire the national debt (a drop in the bucket), talk has been brewing in Congress to “sell the farm“ again. True, the ’94 bidding process helped keep the cost of owning and operating a cell phone relatively low, but can the same type of public benefit be realized in what could unfold next? This time, rather than high-end frequencies needed for optimal cell phone and other high-tech use, FM radio signals could be up for grabs; that portion of the FM spectrum between 82 and 87 megahertz. They are frequencies far less attractive to the telecommunications industry, thus giving us hope that this time the government can act in the public’s interest.
Currently, the biggest hang-up to the idea of selling the 82 to 87 FM frequencies, adjacent to the low-end of the FM radio band, remains the existence of television Channel 6 audio which takes up this portion of the radio spectrum. Most FM radio tuners can receive a portion of this spectrum at the upper end near 88FM. By next February, television broadcasters are supposed to convert from current analogue signals to digital technology; meaning channel 6 audio will vacate the FM band in question. In the case of KRMA, Denver TV - 6, they are planning on moving to Channel 18 in the UHF band.
While 82 to 87 FM is being vacated by Channel 6, radio engineers across the country have no idea what will happen in the new audio playing field, and whether FM radio stations between 88 and 90 FM will be able to make substantial gains in power once channel 6 interference issues are gone. Part of the problem involves FM stations converting to digital signals with wider bandwidth requirements that may need more space between existing stations on the dial. Confused? So is everyone who is somehow involved.
In a much saner time, when the FCC and Congress actually paid attention to how the public good was being served by radio and TV, the idea of a fire sale of frequencies so close to the FM band would be toast – the powers-that-be would favor other options, such as expanding the current FM band from 88, down to 82 FM or somewhere in between. WHY has this idea received little or no traction to this point? Can you say influence from Washington DC lobbyists? With a fire sale, who benefits? Existing radio station conglomerates and networks (both public and private) who don’t want extra competition from an expanded radio dial; and potential users other than broadcasters.
LISTEN UP: KGNU AND CLASSICAL MUSIC DEVOTEES
In my previous CRAZY EIGHTS piece, I listed four options that Colorado Public Radio (CPR) has to continue bringing classical music to Larimer and Weld Counties once KVOD goes to lower-powered 88.1 FM. Here is option #5:
Expand the FM band. Who benefits? Upstart commercial and non-commercial stations, and existing FM stations in the 88 to 90 FM range that could substantially increase their power and outreach, but have been limited up to this point, largely due to Channel 6 interference issues. Among stations caught in this power limitation are CPR with their new 88.1 spot for KVOD, and KGNU, Boulder at 88.5. Expanding the FM band could enable one of these stations to move, for instance, KVOD to 87.7 or lower. Without channel 6 concerns and a greater separation between KVOD and KGNU, both stations could substantially increase power.
It is imperative that everyone interested in a possible expansion of the FM dial to let their opinions be known to people in Congress. It may be that expansion of the FM dial will be needed, just to accommodate expanded bandwidth for existing stations as they convert to digital broadcasting. Let’s hope there will still be some room for new radio voices. This vision will be easier to achieve if you get involved. In a vacuum without public diligence, monopolistic or big business forces could again dictate the terms.
USEFUL BACKGROUND - SOME IMPORTANT HISTORY
As we push for expansion, bringing new ideas, formats, and public openness, remember this: A battle will be nothing new on the radio front. In the 1920’s as radio broadcasting was beginning, educators tried to get the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), predecessor to the FCC, to reserve 20 AM channels for educational non-commercial purposes. Commercial interests wanted nothing to do with that idea and successfully lobbied to shelve the plan. Then in the late 30's and early 40's along came FM, but this time, educational broadcasters had their act together enough to get the FCC to reserve 20 channels between 88 and 91 FM for educational purposes. At the time, commercial radio forces didn't care because they thought then that FM wasn't going to matter. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid 1960’s after signal coverage issues were addressed with the invention of circular polarization for FM radio that it started to become attractive to the industry. The 1960’s also saw the FCC establish a mandate which prohibited owners of AM and FM stations to simulcast the same programming on both stations. FM formats started to grow, and by 1974 FM was the “king” of radio.
Getting the FCC to allow some or all of the old Channel 6 audio frequencies between 82 and 87 FM to become a part of the current FM radio band will require a paradigm shift in the way the FCC has conducted business in recent years. With direction or mis-direction (depending on your point of view), from Congress in recent years we have seen the FCC’s auctioning mentality in full swing, while the public’s choices of radio formats continue to shrink. All hope is not lost in an election year promising change. It’s not impossible to get Congress and the FCC to take the expanded FM band idea seriously.
LOOK AT THAT NEW FM TUNER!
After battles along the Potomac, the biggest obstacle to the expansion would be convincing FM radio receiver manufacturers to add new frequencies to their tuners. To speed up this process, Congress would probably have to step in, the way it did in the 1960’s when two monumental things happened: 1) public policy forced broadcasters of AM/FM operations to stop simulcasting their AM signal over their FM stations; and 2) a Congressional mandate, requiring television manufacturers to include UHF as well as (at the time) more conventional VHF channels on television tuners. The same kind of action for an expanded FM band may be needed to bring new FM frequencies into your home and car.
This is all very speculative, and there may be other scenarios for the 82 to 87 FM frequencies. But it’s not too late to dream, plan, and act for something we’d all like to see. It can start with your letter, or a call to you local Congressional representative’s office. What do we have to lose?