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Feature: Beware the Propaganda

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4/17/99

Always give credit where credit is due. What you're about to read began as the sample "editorial" the NAB included in its recently released "Low-Power FM Lobbying Kit." Keep a close eye on your local newspaper's Opinions section - it seems like the radio industry trying to spin public opinion much like they program the airwaves.

Fight fire with fire. We have tweaked the NAB's copy below. Feel free to print it out and submit it en masse. Maybe get your copy in first; that way when Mr. Radio Executive in your town gets theirs printed, it'll look like he copied you!

It's been said that bad ideas sprout in Washington more often than cherry blossoms in spring along the Potomac. But just the opposite comes from the Federal Communications Commission, which is considering the creation of hundreds if not thousands of low power radio stations to breathe new life into what has become a quagmire of corporate interests milking a public medium at the expense of creativity, diversity, and public service.

Opponents of so-called "microradio" are afraid to create "voices for the voiceless." Detractors protest the "blandness" the growing cadre of former listeners point to on today's radio dial.  They'll deny that radio consolidation has "squeezed out" potential radio entrepreneurs.

Allow me to steal a line from radio great Paul Harvey, and give you "the rest of the story."

Bottom line: The NAB's assertion that the FCC plan could lead to massive interference on an already crowded radio band is reminiscent to Chicken Little's cry of 'the sky is falling.' Radio listeners' majority of complaints with interference comes from the AM band, which will not be affected by the FCC proposal. Shoehorning hundreds if not thousands of stations onto the FM airwaves is woefully overdue, just as much as the FCC's interference regulations, adopted decades ago, are in need of revision.  Stations with smaller power levels are possible in every market of the United States, and can only lead to increased service to the listening public.

Moreover, the FCC proposal does not threaten radio's transition to a crisper, clearer sound: digital radio. Some of the best engineering minds in the business are working to bring digital radio to market in the next few years. Before even considering low power radio, the FCC must make sure that radio can make a smooth interference-free transition to digital.  This won't be a problem, though, with low power radio, as these engineers have already publicly stated the potential interference from digital radio will also be less than the current rules allow for, too.

There are nearly 13,000 radio stations in America today. Most of these stations are simple clones of program formats, like syndicated talk, rock, country, and 'lite music.' Gone from more than 90% of the markets are formats like news, children, gospel, and ethnic programming.

One of the reasons for this is that the NAB's biggest supporters, the mega-broadcasting companies, have driven them out for sub-categories of the most money-making formats. Rock enthusiasts, for example, can flip the dial in most cities and find oldies, alternative, Top 40, or classic hits stations - many of whom play the same songs! Put simply, there has never been less program diversity than in today's fiercely monopolistic radio market.

America's love affair with their hometown radio stations remains strong. But except for the smallest markets, listeners can no longer rely on radio for local high school basketball games and scores, school lunch menus and hospital admissions. In farming communities, they're hunting on the dial for pork belly and soybean prices. With the explosive growth of the Internet and the dizzying array of entertainment choices, the
typical American spends more than three hours a day listening to radio - but instead of actually paying attention, the medium's become a sort of dumbed-down 'aural wallpaper,' suitable as background music for the dentist's office.

Why? Because radio no longer keeps listeners in touch and in tune with their community - and the world at large - like it used to. Forget the up-to-the-minute information on local school closings and weather alerts that all stations used to broadcast - now most carry a smattering of national news and syndicated program offerings such as Don Imus or Dr. Laura. And let's not forget, the listening public now hears more advertisements per hour on the air than ever before in the history of radio.

With the consolidation of the last few years, there are only around 4,000 owners of radio stations in the U.S. - that means there's now more than THREE stations per owner, and that's just if you do the straight math.  Considering THREE companies own 10% of the nation's stations, and you can see the problem's actually worse. Only in the smallest markets now, where the profit margin isn't big enough for a mega-broadcaster's greed, can listeners continue to be well-served with the kind of local news and information that only home-town radio can provide.

The FCC's low power radio plan is basically good in theory, and it's nice to see the government is searching for a solution to a problem which it's long overdue address. Low power radio would add spark to a what's become a broadcast wasteland, the result of which would be a sharp increase in service to listeners.