Broadcasters warn “don’t touch that dial”

Broadcasters warn “don’t touch that dial”

By Rod Perlmutter,

Aug 25, 2000 10:47 AM ET


KANSAS CITY, Mo. and ST. LOUIS, Aug. 28, 2000 ( — Just a few years ago, federal regulators looked upon Dennis Highberger, a Lawrence, Kan. attorney, and Michael Calderon, a Kansas City, Mo. deejay, as radio pirates. But soon, Highberger and Calderon may become radio pioneers – with the official sanction of the Federal Communications Commission.

And they won’t be the only trail-blazers. If federal regulators allow Steve Sorkin, a former state representative candidate from University City, Mo., to set up his proposed Low Power FM (LPFM) radio station, the airwaves of this St. Louis suburb will be filled with insightful social commentary and raucous political debate.

And if Scott Clem, who operates a struggling low-power AM station in West Frankfort, III., is given an LPFM license, his southern Illinois town of 8,500 will be treated to the tunes of Whitney Houston and Michael Bolton – as well as news about his community.

This modern day land rush for the airwaves worries Jerry Hinrikus, co-owner of six stations in eastern Kansas. He says the type of radio stations Highberger, Calderon, Sorkin and Clem want to pioneer may “kill commercial broadcasting as we know it,” and drive small, independently owned commercial stations out of business.

On Aug. 28, residents of Kansas and Illinois will be able to apply to the FCC for construction permits for LPFM stations. In November, Missouri residents will have their chance to apply. But by then, some radio trade groups say, Congress may have already approved legislation that will throw the entire LPFM licensing process in limbo.

That’s because LPFM opponents, such as Hinrikus, the National Association of Broadcasters, its affiliate chapters in Missouri and Kansas, and the majority of the U.S. House of Representatives, say the new service is badly planned “social engineering.”

Hinrikus, general manager of EBC Inc. of Salina, Kan., said LPFM might do the exact opposite of what the FCC said it was supposed to do. Hinrikus said the LPFM’s signal interference may discourage the only diverse voices in commercial radio: the small, independently owned radio stations.

Currently, commercial FM radio stations are licensed only if they can operate at 6,000 watts without causing interference at the selected location and channel.

But in January, the FCC adopted rules that created new classes of service. The new LPFM service will consist of two classes of radio stations, with maximum power levels of 10 watts and 100 watts. The FCC’s stated goal was to “increase opportunity for new entry and ownership diversity.” LPFM service licenses will be for exclusively non­commercial services, and will not be issued to “current broadcast licensees or parties with interests in other media -cable or newspapers.”

Such a move was necessary, radio critics said, because ever since ownership limits were lifted by Congress in 1996, conglomerates have been snapping up scores of stations in every major market. This has wiped a large number of small, locally owned stations right off the map.

That consolidation led many people to start up their own radio stations without federal approval. Highberger offered legal advice to KAW 88.9, which also offered an eclectic variety of music, from pow-wow to klezmer. Calderon, annoyed that “the needs of more than 100,000 Hispanics (in the Kansas City area) are not being served,” started his own 60 watt station at 107.9 FM.

“Radio listenership has been declining rapidly over the last five years,” Highberger said. “People are turned off by blandness and repetitiveness, and they are sick of it.”

Both KAW and 107.9 received warnings from the FCC that their stations were illegal, and by early last year, both had stopped broadcasting.

But if they are allowed back on the air, they’ll have plenty of company. FCC spokesman David Fiske said when the agency accepted applications from the first 10 eligible states in April, it received 780.

“I thought we’d see about 1,000 applications nationwide,” said Michael Bracy, executive director of the Low Power Radio Coalition in Washington, D.C. ‘The (April) numbers were awfully big. I think it is indicative of overwhelming demand for the stations.”

But major broadcasters are backing legislation that will stop the FCC from authorizing low power FM for six months. The legislation was approved by the House on April 13. The bill has gone to the Senate, but has not come to a floor vote.

Don Hicks says he is still concerned. The president of the Missouri Broadcasters Association, which represents about 230 radio stations, notes while Missouri residents can’t apply for LPFM until November, his group is watching what happens on Aug. 28.

About 65 percent of Missouri’s population resides within 30 miles of the state’s borders with Kansas and Illinois, and broadcasting issues, including interference, don’t stop at state borders, he said. The goal of increasing diversity on the radio is laudable, Hicks added, but not the way the FCC has proposed it.

“Everybody would like to own their own radio station, but the FCC has sold a bill of goods to these community groups, and that got their hopes up,” Hicks said. “But listeners will get a substandard signal, get upset and complain to the radio stations. Who wins from this process? Not the LPFM, not the current stations – nobody.”

     Rod Perlmutter covers the Kansas City region for E-mail him with story ideas or comments.

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