WASHINGTON _ Joe Cavanagh wants to be a voice for his community.
Cavanagh, from Willemantic, Conn., hosts a radio show at WHUS – a community radio station affiliated with the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn. His show, “The Living Tradition,” features Celtic music, song and stories.
WHUS is a non-commercial public station that broadcasts in southern Massachuttsets, eastern Connecticut and western Rhode Island. It covers a zone of about 75 miles.
But in August, Cavanagh will branch out on his own to apply for a new kind of radio station – a low power FM station – to broadcast his music. He said he wants to continue to play music that appeals to a smaller section of his community.
And Cavanagh is not alone. So far, the FCC has received between 800 and 900 applications across the nation for low power FM stations, said Steve Adamske, the FCC’s assistant director of media relations.
The FCC defines low-power FM as 100-watt stations reaching listeners within
three miles of a station tower and 10-watt stations with a radius of one-to-two miles.
Individuals or groups such as churches, student groups, labor unions, and other community organizations who want to broadcast non-commercially can apply for a station as long as they promise to abide by FCC regulations.
For listeners, the move to low power FM stations is parallels the onset of cable television stations over the past 20 years, said John Murphy, WHUS’ general manager. It will give listeners more choice.
But the issue is stuck in Senate committees, with no hearings scheduled for the floor.
And depending on what Congress rules, Cavanagh and other potential low power FM station owners could have their permits taken away after they receive them.
On Jan. 20, the Federal Communications Commission adopted rules authorizing a new category of radio services for low-power, non-commercial community FM radio stations. The broadcast radius of these stations would be 1-2 miles and 3.5 miles.
Proponents of the FCC proposal, including Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), artists such as the Indigo Girls and many Internet broadcasters, argue that the stations would serve as community voices. High school radio stations could broadcast to their students. Churches could air announcements or services to those who could not attend church in person. And listeners in the immediate area could tune in to hear less main-streamed music.
But those against it, including Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio argue the low power stations will cause too much interference with existing stations.
Interference means listeners could hear static or “cross talk” – another station’s programming – when trying to tune in to a larger, commercial station, said Donald Lockett, a vice president and chief technology officer for NPR.
On April 13, the House passed H.R. 3439, introduced by Rep. Michael Oxley (R-OH), which restricted the number of low power stations by re-establishing previous FCC signal-interference standards.
Full-power stations may not occupy a frequency within any of the three adjacent “channel” of another full-power station in the area. For example, if there is a station located at 101.1 fm, there cannot be a station at 101.3, 101.5 or 101.7, Lockett said.
When looking at low power FM, The FCC adopted the rule to permit station licenses on the third-adjacent channel to an existing full-power station. Which means although there is a station at 101.1 FM there could be another station at 101.7. This provision is what was not allowed for in HR 3439.
The bill also required the FCC to carry out a study to determine the extent that low-power stations would interfere with existing regular FM stations.
Although the FCC already conducted signal interference tests before approving it, those tests were conducted in a laboratory setting and not in a “real world” atmosphere, Lockett said.
The Senate has two opposing bills.
Gregg introduced a bill that would prohibit all low power FM stations.
But McCain introduced a bill to allow for hundreds of low-power FM stations as long as they don’t cause harmful interference to full-power stations.
McCain’s legislation would let low-power FM stations operate on unused frequencies. The National Academy of Sciences would be the judge on allegations of interference.
Regardless, Adamske said the FCC will continue to take applications. He said the FCC will begin to issue station permits by the end of July or beginning of August. Stations that receive permits first should be on the airwaves by October.
The first window to file applications for stations closed June 8. The deadline was for Alaska, California, District of Columbia, Georgia, Indiana Louisiana, Maine, Mariana Islands, Maryland, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Utah. The next deadline, in August, is for those in Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, Virginia and Wyoming.
There is no limit on the number who can apply for a low power FM station, Adamske said. The number of stations that will receive permits is not yet determined.
Lockett said NPR is particularly concerned about interference.
He said the possibility of interference is a major concern for the company. NPR stations that play classical or jazz music, which process frequencies more sensitively than a rock or pop station, would be more open to static or cross talk.
He said he also thinks the low power stations might not stick to the non-commercial label.
“I think it’s a misnomer that these non-commercials will not do commercials and be owned by commercial entities,” Lockett said
Cavanagh said the smaller stations still are important as local community voices and add diversity.
“The Constitution gave us a loud voice in Congress, so we can’t let Congress come in and take away the small ones,” he said.
Singer and songwriter Amy Ray, half of the duo the Indigo Girls, agrees that community is at the core of the low power stations.
“It’s about the voice of the community, not just the music,” she said.
But diversity also is an issue. Ray and singing partner Emily Saliers started the Indigo Girls as an independent band in 1985, in a time when Ray said there was a wealth of local broadcasting stations.
Fifteen years later, Ray said independent artists have a much more difficult time getting their music played at most radio stations.
“Now, the way radio is set up, if you’re in you’re in and if you’re out you’re out,” she said.
Still, Lockett said he and NPR want to make sure existing stations can survive the onset.
“(There is) a lot of uncertainty and a lot of unresolved issues, and all we’re saying is let’s stop and get these issues resolved,” Lockett said.
Filing windows – FCC deadlines to apply for a low power FM station
1. Date: June 8, 2000
States: Alaska, California, District of Columbia, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mariana Islands, Maryland, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Utah
2. Date: August 2000
States: Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, Virginia and Wyoming
3. Date: November 2000
States: American Samoa, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin
4. Date: February 2001
States: Arizona, Florida, Iowa, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Vermont and West Virginia
5. Date: May 2001
States: Alabama, Arkansas, Guam, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington