Written by William C. Winslow
Congressional efforts to derail microradio stations for churches and other nonprofit groups threaten an innovative effort to put such groups on the air in their neighborhoods.
With strong backing from the UCC Office of Communication, in January the Federal Communications Commission set up a process allowing educational, religious, health and community groups to operate low power non-commercial FM radio stations. The purpose was to give "voice to the voiceless," according to Commission chairperson William E. Kennard.
In anticipation of such community radio, OC received a two-year $250,000 grant from the Ford Foundation to equip community-based groups wishing to bid on a license. It then hired Andrea Cano Vargas, a former Common Global Ministries Board (Disciples/UCC) missionary with years of communications experience, to run the program.
Low power radio is now endangered because of bipartisan legislation introduced into both houses of Congress to kill it on the grounds that signal interference would hurt established broadcasters.
The broadcasters blanketed Capitol Hill with compact discs that purport to show what kind of interference there would be. But the disc was a simulation and FCC engineers call it fraudulent lab.
In protest, the Rev. Robert Chase, executive director of the Office of Communication, released a statement supporting the FCC.
"Microradio is being portrayed by some as a misguided endeavor," he says, that will "choke the airwaves with a cacophony of babble. This is unfair and inaccurate."
"Significant technical studies demonstrate otherwise," he adds, "as conservative safeguards for current station operators have been built into the FCC guidelines."
The Commission, which sets engineering standards, denies there will be any interference. But the National Association of Broadcasters has rallied its member stations to seek relief from Congress.
Commissioner Kennard says the real reason for the attack is fear that new stations will take listeners away from existing broadcasters. But microradio's power is limited, just enough to send a signal 10 blocks in the city and 3.5 miles in the country.
As of this writing (March 28), the legislation has not been reported out of committee, but is attached as a rider to an appropriations bill, making it harder for President Clinton to veto it. Both the president and Vice-President Al Gore support microradio.