Page Two

The FCC legalizes microradio, then regulates it out of existence. The forced demise of public access radio.

Page Two

The more things change--

Sixteen months ago (on Feb. 18, 2000), the Chronicle editorial voice -- in the person of media columnist Lee Nichols -- was righteously indignant. The FCC, charged with regulating the orderly use of the public airwaves, had issued a new set of regs drastically slashing the number of radio frequencies available for Low Power FM stations, the closest thing radio has to public access. And suddenly, LPFM -- more or less tolerated for decades as "pirate radio," suddenly found itself legalized, but regulated virtually out of existence.

The tool was an arcane standard known as "second adjacency." It's a simple concept: If a station is licensed to broadcast at a certain frequency, no other local station may broadcast at that frequency, or the one directly adjacent. Two frequencies away -- 0.4 kHz on your FM dial -- had always been okay. Pirate stations in Austin and around the nation had always broadcast at this "second adjacency" without complaints about interference. (And in fact, it's not uncommon to find full-power stations whose licenses predate the regs, happily co-existing directly adjacent to one another on the dial.) But now, as a "compromise" with the major broadcast conglomerates, the FCC was going to put those frequencies off-limits as well, and demand that LPFM stations be no closer to any other station than the third adjacency (.6 on your dial). This meant that Austin, for example, went from having at least 16 frequencies available to the public to having two -- both of which suffered from other interference problems which made them less than desirable to broadcast over.

It was "a politically motivated specification," said one local activist. "It does not in any way relate to the technology, or the engineering practices and standards that are supposed to govern these kinds of decisions."

It was a sad day, Nichols agreed, and it could bode ill for Austin's existing microstation, Free Radio Austin.

-- the more they stay the same.

So now it's 2001, and the FCC's vicious Catch-22 net has quietly closed around the handful of remaining public access stations. In an ugly piece of deal-cutting this past spring, the FCC amended the regs once more, inexplicably forbidding even third adjacencies this time, and, for good measure, banning anyone who's ever operated an LPFM station in the past from getting a license in the future.

So now the FCC is finally accepting applications for the new, improved, legal, LPFM licenses. Only two catches: No one with any prior experience need apply, and in any case, there's probably not a single available frequency in any major city in America. Meanwhile, of course, Free Radio Austin is long gone, having been literally dragged off the air by federal armed forces.

Public airwaves? Not so as you'd notice. Read all about it. end story

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FCC, microradio, Free Radio Austin, pirate radio, Federal Communications Commission, Lower Power FM radio, LPFM

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