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Low-power FM a long time coming

Jessica Kerry has the story in this week's Phoenix of how Brown Student Radio, years after it applied for a low-power FM license, is still waiting to year back from the Federal Communications Commission:

Unlike Brown University-based WBRU (95.5 FM), a corporate station with a professional program director and sales staff, non-commercial Brown Student Radio (BSR) is operated exclusively by students and community members. This makes it one of the rare stations whose programming is driven by taste rather than the bottom line, playing new music and unconventional genres that would not get airtime otherwise. A typical Thursday evening features a call-in show with indie musicians, classical American roots and folk recordings, and contemporary variations on the blues.
 
But BSR has struggled to reach listeners since its FM inception in 1997. The station, which broadcasts daily from 7 pm to 5 am, rents airtime from the Wheeler School-owned WELH (88.1 FM).
 
Since WELH’s Seekonk, Massachusetts-based 150-watt signal has a reach of just over five miles, the station barely reaches its target audience, if at all. And though BSR broadcasts 24/7 on the Web, it has a hard time reaching out to new listeners beyond College Hill and accomplishing its official goal of “further[ing] interactions between Brown students and the greater Providence community.”
 
Meanwhile, seven years after BSR applied for low-power FM (LPFM) license, the Federal Communications Commission has yet to decide who will operate the area’s only available LPFM station, Providence’s 96.5 FM. Of 15 groups that applied after Congress authorized low-power radio in 2000, five remain in the running, including Providence Community Radio and three religious groups.
 
While LPFM seemed like a boon for community groups across the US, the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio were quick to complain that it would interfere with commercial broadcasting signals. Congress responded by restricting the licenses to rural areas and enforced prohibitive minimum distance requirements to protect commercial frequencies.
 
A 2003 FCC study showed, however, that low-power signals, with a maximum broadcast strength of 100 watts and a 3.5-mile radius, would not significantly interfere with commercial broadcasts.
 
Last month, US Representatives Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, and Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican, introduced a House bill to expand access to non-commercial community radio by relaxing the limitations originally imposed on low-power FM. With co-sponsorship by leading members of Congress, including Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and John McCain of Arizona, the bill is slated to receive a full hearing in the Senate Committee on Science, Commerce, and Transportation and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
 
The FCC issued more than 500 low-power FM licenses before it stopped accepting applications in 2003. The Local Community Radio Act would authorize hundreds, if not thousands more, potentially ending BSR’s license stalemate and putting it on the air full-time.
 
Expanding access to low power FM radio would allow local non-commercial groups to bypass the typical cost of broadcasting — millions to acquire even a small commercial station. An LPFM station, by contrast, would cost between $5000 and $8000 to equip, making it feasible for outfits like BSR, which is financed by grants, donations, and Brown. The bill would also increase diversity on the airwaves, counteracting the severe media consolidation of the past 20 years.

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