Low Power, Low Payoff

There's a cheap and simple way for governments to get their message out. It's called radio.
September 2001
By Jonathan Walters  |  Senior Editor
A Senior Editor of Governing, Jonathan has been covering state and local public policy and administration for more than 30 years.

Every year, untold numbers of earnest conference session hours are devoted to around-the-table hand-wringing by state and local officials over the serious matter of how to bring government and citizens closer together. The goal of that increased familiarity, say the hand- wringers, is to create a more engaged and active citizenry, on the one hand; a citizenry that, not incidentally, might be more willing to support major bond issues for schools, roads and open space protection, on the other.

So along comes the federal government--that Great Satan of mandates and preemption--and hands state and local governments a gift, one that would give the complaining governments a cheap and effective vehicle for making the citizen-government connection. What happens? The states and localities never even bother to pull the wrapper off the package.

The gift in this case was the result of a hard-fought battle over low-power FM radio broadcasting, a fight that started in 1996 and dragged on until the spring of last year. Its origin was a proposal by William E. Kennard, then-chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to grant new FCC licenses to FM radio stations broadcasting anemic signals aimed very locally, signals that could spread a message out to the community but wouldn't interfere with the noise being made by the FM big boys in the same market.

The proposal seems to have been initiated by equal parts guilt and pragmatism. On the guilt side, Kennard apparently felt some queasiness about the largely unfettered rights granted to politically high- powered FM stations under the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which blew the caps off the tight restriction on the number of stations one person or company could own in a given market. On the pragmatic side, low-power FM was already a growing phenomenon, fueled by dozens of "pirate" stations operating nationwide without FCC licenses, stations frequently devoted to down-home news, music and commentary aimed at very specific communities in a tightly defined geographical area.

Predictably, Kennard's proposal was met with a barrage of initial criticism from a mattress factory's worth of strange bedfellows. The spectacle of shock jocks, NPR and heavy metal piling under the sheets with Christian Right radio was a sight to behold.

Ultimately, though, a compromise was worked out, whereby low-power licenses would be granted to stations that were at least .4 on the FM dial away from all other conventional FM stations in a market (that is, a 90.3 could locate between an 88.9 and a 90.7).

While no detailed analysis has been done of the organizations and individuals that have applied for licenses, all it takes is a cursory buzz through the applicant lists on the FCC Web site to see who has and hasn't seized the opportunity to become more effective local communicators. And it's very obvious that state and local governments are not even remotely prominent among those who've applied for licenses. For the most part it's been local colleges, universities and religious groups.

In an era when government officials are especially harsh in their criticism of the press for not covering government well, what better opportunity to get their word out than having a radio station devoted to the business of government? Yes, there are some state and local jurisdictions that already avail themselves of local-access cable channels. But what more natural fit for a city council or a state legislature than to broadcast over its own low-power FM station to every radio in town, turning over unused broadcast time to wider topics, such as announcements of hearings, voting and voter registration opportunities, information on pending bond issues, zoning debates and vaccination schedules.

Even in some large cities, it turns out some space remains for low- power FM: three frequencies ended up being available in Philadelphia. In Phoenix, a Spanish church has applied for the one available frequency, according to the M Street Journal, a bi-weekly that covers the radio world. Meanwhile, San Diego is witnessing a fierce fight for its single open frequency, and government is not among the combatants. To date, in fact, it appears that the only governmental entities with the foresight to apply for licenses have been state transportation departments, including those in Georgia, New Mexico, New York and Vermont. They plan to use low-power FM to broadcast travel advisories.

It amounts to a sad commentary on the energy and imagination of state and local governments in telling their story, especially if state and local officials are sincere when they say they want to reconnect with the citizenry. And for a governmental interest group that in the mind of Washington is more often whining than working out its own problems, the message being broadcast here is loud and clear: The federal actions that states and localities care about are those that can be measured in money. What that attitude adds up to in this case is a significant Washington-sponsored opportunity gone with the wind.