Low-Power Radio



As part of his arguments
submitted to the FCC regarding the possibility of low-power
radio in the U.S., Free Radio Berkeley founder Stephen
Dunifer suggested that low-power broadcasting in Canada could
act as a model for licensing related efforts in the U.S. The
arguments used by commissioners to counter Dunifer fell into
one of three categories: wrong, irrelevant, or simply not
true. The central argument made by the Commission against
low-power radio is that such operations would inevitably
cause interference with existing broadcasters. While the
evidence supporting this argument is limited at best, as
Alexander Cockburn noted in
The Nation in
1995, "in its role as the rich folks’ cop the FCC
has been soliciting complaints from licensed broadcasters to
buttress its specious claims about interference." Also,
the FCC argued that since there are far fewer Canadian radio
stations, using more or less the same number of frequencies
as in the U.S., interference is not a consideration in that
country, an argument that is not entirely accurate or in some
cases even relevant. Perhaps the most compelling evidence to
contradict the protestations of the FCC is the fact that
"low-power" radio stations exist all across the
U.S. and Canada, and not just in small isolated communities.

The spurious arguments put
forward by the FCC are mere contrivances designed to obscure
the real reasons for the lack of a thriving, vital, and truly
national community radio sector in the United States. These
are the disastrous spectrum management policies of the FCC
and the collusion of the commercial and public radio
establishments in their continuation. These policies include
the supposed prohibition of any radio broadcasting below 100
watts. It is often useful to compare the spectrum management
policies of the FCC with its regulatory counterparts in other
countries. Canada is a particularly striking example as such
a comparison highlights exactly why the FCC has banned
low-power radio and continues to ignore the ongoing identity
crisis which has enveloped public access and community radio
over the last decade or so. This story also clarifies exactly
why community radio stations in the U.S. have been so mired
in an apparently endless series of crises while at the same
time the form has been flourishing to our north.

Community radio in Canada began
in small, isolated aboriginal communities in the far north of
the country. Numerous aboriginal communities began to
experiment with unlicensed low-power radio stations as early
as 1958 out of economic and cultural necessity. Many found
that radio could save lives and ease the harsh necessities of
the trapline. Others were spurred into action in part by the
Canadian government’s Accelerated Coverage Plan which,
in the 1950s, began beaming an enormous amount of satellite
programming to people who did not ask for it and did not want
it. The use of locally controlled radio equipment was in part
a reaction to a tide of English-language television and radio
which engulfed the north and continues to aggressively push
aside local expression. These experiments eventually grew
into full-fledged radio stations and later into a large
number of aboriginal radio and communication societies which
represent hundreds of communities. Some print newspapers and
many produce radio and television programs in varying amounts
of Inuktituk, Ojibway, Cree, Micmac, English, French, and
some local languages and dialects. Currently there are over
300 aboriginal communities using low-power transmitters and
other community access radio equipment. While suffering from
dramatic budget cuts made early in the 1990s, most still
manage to produce programming, provide much-needed
communication services, and distribute information in a
variety of media. Most importantly they do so in the
languages spoken by those people they represent.

In addition to the hundreds of
low-power stations used in northern Canada, low-power radio
exists in some of the most crowded radio dials on the
continent, including those in southern Quebec, Ontario, and
even Metropolitan Toronto. These broadcasting operations
would be considered illegal in the U.S. due to insufficient
wattage. For example, CHRY is a 50-watt station which
operates from the campus of York University, set in the far
northwest corner of Metropolitan Toronto. The campus and the
station are set in the much-maligned Jane-Finch corridor, a
low- to middle-income neighborhood named for the intersection
of Jane Street and Finch Avenue which is one of the most
ethnically diverse areas in Canada. The station’s signal
only reaches about eight miles or so and as a result its
programming is largely reflective of the community it which
it is situated, including programs by and for students and
the West Indian and Asian communities in the area. Another
low-power station in Toronto is CKRG 800 AM on the campus of
York University’s Francophone Glendon College which
specializes in French language programming.

Apart from these actual radio
stations, the FCC ignored other equally obvious facts in its
rebuke of Dunifer. Canadian regulators have long had to
account for the huge number of U.S. radio stations whose
signals have extensive reach into Canada and which have
constrained domestic development for decades. This is not a
reciprocal concern for U.S. stations because of long-standing
international agreements which guarantee U.S. control over
the vast majority of continental and regional
"clear-channel" frequencies. In cities like
Windsor, which is just across the river from Detroit, as well
as Montreal and Toronto, the radio and television bands are
actually more crowded that those of comparably sized U.S.
cities precisely because of allowances made for U.S.
broadcasters. Yet despite this imposed reality, in Windsor,
Toronto, and Montreal, Canadian broadcast regulators have
found room for several radio stations of 50 watts and under,
including CKHQ at Kanesetake and CKRK at Kahnawake, native
reserves near Montreal, as well as CFRU at the University of
Guelph (near Toronto) and CJAM at the University of Windsor.
Unlike in the U.S., however, the Canadian regulatory regime
governing community radio does not apply arbitrary blanket
prohibitions on types of radio stations based only on
considerations like their radiating power, but takes into
account the social context and function of a particular radio
station. In most countries this is called "public

Perhaps most surprisingly, a
large number of low-power AM broadcasters exist all across
the U.S. as well, but these are the "correct" kinds
of low-power broadcasters, the kind which "offer
travelers news and information on attractions and parking and
weather at airports, along highways, and in parks all across
the country," according to
magazine. Further, the number of applications by local
governments for these kinds of services have increased
dramatically in recent years. The AM band has even been
increased in size recently to accommodate these local
information services and new commercial stations as well. No
consideration has yet been given to competing possibilities
as the imagined realm of the "public interest"
isn’t nearly as flexible as the FCC’s logic. What
should be clear is that much of the evidence cited by the FCC
to buttress its claim that low-power radio operations would
cause unacceptable interference with existing broadcasters
remain at best unsubstantiated, selectively applied, and in
some cases entirely irrelevant.

The Politics of Policy

The FCC has another more subtle
reason for its refusal to allow the existence of low-power
radio: the near-total policy vacuum regarding community radio
in the U.S. This vacuum has ensured that the development of
community radio in this country has only been allowed within
the limits determined by the existing public radio
establishment. This fact is in large part responsible for the
legal difficulties low-power radio advocates are now facing.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, organized political
pressure on the FCC regarding community radio did not come
from grassroots activists, but from an institutional alliance
between National Public Radio (NPR) and the National
Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB). Laboring under
the impression that the available slots on the FM band were
rapidly disappearing, the NPR/ NFCB alliance began to push
for what they called the "professionalization" of
public and community radio. In 1978 both organizations
convinced the FCC to constrict the activities and number of
10-watt stations and give preferential treatment to their
wealthier higher-wattage counterparts. To accomplish this
policy triumph, NPR and the NFCB presented a series of very
specific recommendations to the FCC regarding the future of
community radio. In their 1980 book,
in the
Peter Fornatale and Joshua Mills
note the content of these suggestions: (1) stations of less
than 100 watts will be required to move to the commercial
spectrum, if any room is available. If not, they will be
allowed to stay in the non-commercial band only if they can
prove that they will not interfere will any other stations.
(2) Low-power stations will no longer be protected from
interference, in effect losing all practical spectrum-use

(3) Low-power stations must
operate at least 36 hours a week and at least 5 hours a day.
(4) Stations broadcasting less than 12 hours a day will be
required to share their frequencies in agreements created and
enforced by the FCC. As has been noted elsewhere, the FCC has
gone well beyond even these strident provisions.

The most unexpected consequence
of the attempted consolidation of non-commercial radio in the
U.S. has been the low-power radio movement. A movement was
created comprised of precisely those operations whose
existence the public radio establishment aimed to prohibit,
founded by those whose interests this same establishment
repeatedly claimed to serve. Most interesting is the adoption
by the FCC in the Dunifer case of the core concept which
propped up the arguments used by the public radio alliance in
their palace coup: spectrum scarcity. Representatives of NPR
and the NFCB argued that since FM frequencies were scarce,
the limited space in the nonconunerdal portion of the FM band
should not be taken up by "unprofessional"
operations with the kind of limited range and (implicitly)
limited appeal of low-power radio. Of course, spectrum
scarcity, where it can be said to exist at all, is not a
natural condition, but an imposed one. It has been created by
the spectrum management and use policies of the FCC, not by
the activities 10-watt broadcasters. More specifically, it
has been the deregulatory policies the FCC has followed since
1980 which have put the most pressure on remaining

Deregulation has resulted in
the drastic over-licensing of the FM band and a subsequent
and predictable wave of station bankruptcies. These are
convenient facts for those who are now building continental
networks by scooping up a large number of stations at
bargain-basement prices from overextended entrepreneurs
trying to get out of a business in which monstrous economies
of scale predominate. The most important fact to understand
in relation to the arguments of spectrum scarcity adopted by
the NPR/NFCB alliance is that as deregulation began in
earnest in 1980, those claiming to represent public and
community radio did not fight the policy or offer any
practical alternatives for the independent development of
non-commercial radio, but instead entered into a tactical
alliance with the FCC and in the end became beneficiaries of
a disastrous policy. The legal inadmissibility of low-power
radio is not due to any potential interference problems that
might arise nor is it due to a crowded radio spectrum. It is
due to the self-interest of those who are most able to divide
non-commercial spectrum space between themselves and
influence policy-makers to transform this self-interest into

In contrast the Canadian
experience with unlicensed and low-power radio has been made
possible only by an arduous decades-long process of policy
development, refinement, and implementation, a process that
early unlicensed experiments helped to initiate. The result
has been a community radio sector which has steadily expanded
from a few stations in the late 1960s to several hundred
today. More importantly true public access community radio
has been legitimized by the state and, despite the occasional
factional domination of one station or another and the
chronic financial difficulties many stations face, community
radio is legally recognized, clearly defined, and firmly
established in almost every region of the country. The
process of policy development has simply not occurred in the
United States and in fact recent developments have made any
possibility of a workable policy defining and solidifying the
limits of the community radio even more remote.

The main lesson for U.S.
activists to take away from Canadian community radio is that
nothing is as important as a clear and practical working
definition which sets the terms through which community radio
can find its voice and govern its everyday operations. This
definition doesn’t necessarily have to be sanctioned by
the state nor must it be enshrined in law, but it must exist
and it must sooner or later come to define the agreed-upon
limits of the form. The kind of collective definition found
in Canada has allowed for change based on consensus, not
force and this, in turn, has built solidarity between
stations. All stations who have accepted the general
definition of community radio are now implicitly allied with
one another. If one station is attacked all stations are
attacked; what happens to one can happen to all. The range of
possible responses to the inevitable encroachment of blind
power and destructive capital is wider and stronger. With
this in mind it becomes less difficult to imagine a series of
low-power storefront radio operations across the U.S. whose
only responsibilities are to register for the use of regional
frequencies set aside for community access and to reflect and
record the needs and desires of their participants,
listeners, or detractors.


Charles Fairchild lives in
Baltimore and has written extensively about the media in
Canada and the U.S. A longer version of this article will
appear in
Seizing the Airwaves, Ron
Sakolsky, Stephen Dunifer, eds. (AK Press, Fall 1997).