Radio Updates


Back in the Clinton years, FCC commissioner Michael Powell voted against a plan to let community groups establish their own low-power radio stations. Three years later, elevated to chairman and faced with an uproar over his agency's new ownership rules, he's starting to recognize such stations as an easy way to increase localism in the media. Starting next month, he declared yesterday, he intends to speed the approval of low-power licenses.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is embracing unlicensed low-power radio. Earlier this week, it voted unanimously to condemn the FCC's efforts to shut down the venerable outlaw San Francisco Liberation Radio.

NEXT: First They Came for the Power Rangers

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  1. Jeff Schmidt,

    Of course we can readily guess at the answer being a resounding no, thus backing the point of your hypothetical question. But then, why is that the “real question,” unless you want to impose that ol’ purity test on all potential (albeit temporary) allies?

  2. Of course, nobody even broaches the subject of getting the FCC out of the broadcast gatekeeping business. Instead, Powell and everyone else seem pre-occupied with finding new and creative ways of allowing the federal government to continue to assert its unconstitutional authority to approve or deny the “privilege” of using the radio spectrum.

    Why is the real question — about an approach that would actually have the potential for letting “a thousand flowers bloom” — never asked?

    Look how peaceful NYC was during the recent blackout. People can live in relative harmony, even in a place like NYC, without government telling them how and when to breathe. The FCC’s broadcast gatekeeper function is no longer necessary, indeed, it is counterproductive. Let’s end it. FCC delenda est.

  3. Jesse,
    This is obviously good news, but how good is it. Are you dancing?

  4. Warren: I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m glad that Powell is apparently turning around, but there’s a lot more to be done — and a lot of ways his larger localism initiative could end up pointing us in the wrong direction.

    As for the San Francisco news: It’s nice for a number of reasons, but it doesn’t mean much legally. Lots of towns have passed similar resolutions when their favorite local pirates have been shut down — usually small towns, but occasionally a big boy like Boston. It hasn’t made much of a difference yet.

  5. fyodor

    The question goes to the over-all principle of the matter rather than the specific nature of this example.

    Is the SFBOS supportive simply BECAUSE it’s a left wing propaganda machine – or are they genuinely committed in principle to low power radio regardless of the content.

  6. James, are you sure you know what you are asking for? With zero FCC (or other agency) regulation, the spectrum will become next to useless. There would be nothing to prevent people with hacker mentalities (antisocial morons) from setting up a spark gap transmitter that would render everyone else’s RF equipment useless. Would you expect local authorities to investigate/legislate such actions? I could (almost)see that from a libertarian standpoint, but even that is flawed because RF transmission really does impact interstate commerce unless you are talking about transmissions in the 1 watt range.

  7. jough,
    We want the spectrum to be treated as property. There are several ways of doing this. The government would have a role in prosecuting those who trespassed on your property but there would still be no regulation over how you used the spectrum you owned title to.

  8. Jough,

    I apologize to those who have already seen this argument on earlier threads.

    But the classic pattern for libertarian regulation of the airwaves is the common law of riparian rights, which regulated the interference with mills, irrigation, and so forth, by activities upstream.

    The first user of a wavelength in a certain geographical area has a property claim on the right to broadcast on that wavelength within a certain radius. Anyone else who interferes with his signal is subject to tort action.

    The advantage here is that the system works on the basis of first come, first serve, without any unnecessary restraints on market entry by licensing fees. And interference is a technically verifiable concept, whereas the FCC’s system restricts the number of broadcasters far more than is necessary given the capacity of the spectrum.

    And unlike an executive bureaucracy, the common law system requires that a defendant be given the benefit of common law procedural protections. A regulatory body, on the other hand, typically places the burden of proof on a defendant and subjects him to seizure of property without due process (think IRS here).

  9. I seeeeeee.

    And when someone in Illinois broadcasts over someone else in Indiana…a trip to federal court to work out who is stepping on who?

    I think we would still need an FCC (or 50 state versions of it) to investigate reports of interference. Also, we would need to determine what is reasonable use of bandwidth (ie. what if I want to set up some piece of crap transmitter that uses literally ten times the bandwidth necessary to get a given job done).

    I’m guessing all these sorts of issues have been explored elsewhere?

  10. The real question – would the SFBOS have voted to condemn the FCC if SF LIb Radio wasn’t a far left concern?

  11. Jough-

    As a matter of fact, I know very well what I am demanding, thank you very much.

    Others here have discussed the models of property rights and trespass litigation that would serve well in the absence of the FCC. I would even support the repurposing of the FCC into a system of “spectrum courts” to handle interstate interference cases, so as not to clog the regular court system, were the hackers you fear to run wild and spike the demand for trespass litigation. I personally think that we wouldn’t even need a repurposed FCC, but am willing to keep an open mind.

    The main thing I want ended is the FCC’s role as gatekeeper: deciding who may or may not broadcast (or continue to broadcast) in an otherwise available channel. Also, there is no need for the FCC to act as censor, or to strong-arm stations into serving “the public interest.” Those functions were given to the FCC under the theory that the spectrum was a severely limited resource that needed to be properly “husbanded” by an impartial referee, acting in the public interest. Technological improvements since 1934 have had the effect of expanding the available spectrum by orders of magnitude, as previously unusable segments became usable, better ways to utilize established segments were discovered, and substitutes to broad-spectrum over-the-air broadcasting(e.g., cable and satellite services) became available.

    In short, just about anyone who wants to use radio spectrum for any purpose — certainly for any broadcast purpose — can be accommodated through today’s technology, if they use a little care, common sense, and courtesy. Under our present circumstances, the forces of individual interest disposing of individual resources, and normal market demand and supply, are more than enough to ensure diversity and the service of the public interest.

    It used to be said that the freedom of the press belonged to him who owned one. These days, practically ANYONE can set up and operate a low-power radio or TV transmitter with an acceptably high-quality signal, the modern equivalent of a printing press. There’s enough spectrum space to accommodate thousands, or even tens of thousands of such transmitters, without mutual interference, or objectionable interference to established broadcasters. Yet, there is no free “electronic” press, and no hope of one, as long as the FCC aggressively asserts the authority to say who can or cannot broadcast. This is a silly, counterproductive, completely artificial situation — the relic of am earlier time and a vastly different technological environment — and we need to leave it behind.

  12. Sorry, but “common sense” isn’t going to cover the technical issues that will arise from people transmitting at will – even if you demand it, LOL!. Take this thread to a site that has people on it who actually know something about RF (even ametuers) and they’ll cut your arguments to pieces. That’s why I say “common sense” (the kind shown in this forum) doesn’t cut it. There is not unlimited spectrum. There could EFFECTIVELY be unlimited spectrum, but not if we impose any of the schemes being proposed here. You may think there is unlimited spectrum because you don’t encounter much interference today. But guess what, that’s because of regulation (as much as the libertarian in me hates to admit it) and VERY carefull upfront planning – by ENGINEERS, not philosophers (bullshit artists).

  13. Something to think about:

    What if the RF spectrum that was used for wasn’t standard radio and TV but multicast TCP/IP? Just as the FCC doesn’t have rights to regulate websites, they wouldn’t have the right to regulate these multicast IP broadcasts. All you need is the technical ability to create enough bandwidth so that everybody who wants to see or hear something in an area has the ability to get enough bandwidth to achieve that goal and the nasty, freedom reducing part of the FCC is eliminated. The good property and engineering standards part can continue to function all without having to go through the tiresome, get rid of the FCC campaign. All you need to do is advocate more spectrum be available for wireless IP and make sure that the transmission standards are seamless worldwide (there are plenty of committees that do that already, some government run, some not).

    Just think about it, anybody with an IP address can set up a broadcast server today. Creating a receiver that will tune in via wireless/wired IP shouldn’t be that difficult, it just hasn’t been done. So why expend all the effort in a probably losing drive to politically kill an agency when you could put in less effort (you’ll have more allies) in making the political regulation of speech irrelevant?

    The only people who want to kill the FCC are libertarians and anarchists. But the coalition to create more unlicensed broadband? That would be libertarians, anarchists, a great many conservatives and liberals, entrepreneurs, and the tech lobby.

    As broadcast shifts from the old rf style to packetized broadcasting the FCC will have less and less to enforce and at a certain point will become a historic and irrelevant pimple on the backside of government. At that point it would be practical to pop the zit and get rid of the regulation function entirely.

  14. Jough – What makes you think that someone with a broadcast background or an engineering background couldn’t or wouldn’t make the arguments that you so impotently criticize? Just because I or others don’t come in here and start spouting technical jargon or waving our First Class FCC licenses (long ago grandfathered to “General Class”) or our Amateur Radio licenses in your face, doesn’t mean we can’t, or that we don’t understand the truth of the industry well enough to express it in non-technical terms. It’s just so damned boring for everyone else if we turn this into a geekspeak festival.

    Technology has already turned the spectrum into a vast resource, which can accommodate all comers, so long as they pay the slightest attention to what they are doing. When they don’t, and step on other people’s toes (whether deliberately or accidentally) a property-and-trespass model will serve the public interest far better than the command-and-control, gatekeeper model that the FCC has used since 1934. We don’t need the FCC to perform that function.

    I agree that careful thought and planning on the part of engineers has contributed to the technologically-enabled bounty that is now available to us. I do NOT agree that regulation is the beneficient contributor that you seem to think it is, much less the inspiration for all the engineering wizardry that makes it possible for the average joe (or is it jough) to put up a decent-sounding FM radio station in his garage WITHOUT benefit of the knowledge that was once necessary to earn an FCC commercial operator’s license.

    TM Lutas – You may be surprised to hear this, but as someone who understands the technical trajectories in play here, I agree completely with your vision of the future and have made my investments accordingly. Clearly, under the scenario you present, the FCC should wither away as the obsolete appendix it already is. And yet, and yet… the FCC still exerts an unseemly influence on landline telecom, even though the capacity of cable broadband obviates the “scarce resource” justification that the FCC used to assert authority over radio-spectrum emissions. I think that, without definite, determined “help” on its journey into that good night, the FCC will not go quietly; it will no more wither away than the authoritarian state faded away in that Worker’s Paradise, the late and unlamented Soviet Union.

  15. “And when someone in Illinois broadcasts over someone else in Indiana…a trip to federal court to work out who is stepping on who?”

    You act as if people don’t constantly litigate – or at least file complaints with the FCC – about these issues anyway. It’s not as if tremendous resources aren’t being spent today trying to lobby and gain favor with the FCC and we STILL have monopolistic control of the radio spectrum.

    “I think we would still need an FCC (or 50 state versions of it) to investigate reports of interference. Also, we would need to determine what is reasonable use of bandwidth (ie. what if I want to set up some piece of crap transmitter that uses literally ten times the bandwidth necessary to get a given job done).”

    All of these rules could be litigated in court. In the Indiana/Illinois example, if an Indianan plant spews crap into the air affecting citizens in Illinois, they figure out the proper venue (sorry, don’t know what the rule is, not a lawyer), and then they litigate. The property rights in a radio frequency wouldn’t begin and end at state borders necessarily and courts would figure out whether the claim of interference of a previously defined property right really was interference.

    So under the current system, big media corps get special treatment from the FCC and use the claim of interference all the time to demand tougher rules against local (or pirate) radio. That’s why there’s been such reluctance on the part of the FCC to allow for low-bandwidth radio – because big media doesn’t like the competition and claims interference where there really isn’t any.

    Ok – what if you set up a transmitter that encroaches on someone else’s frequency in a particular region? Well, let’s assume the other person was there first, was broadcasting, can show property rights in the frequency. They’d take you to court, they’d have to prove you were interfering with their property right, and then they’d get a court order (if they won) to shut you down.

    But what if you were broadcasting on an area of the spectrum unclaimed – under this system of rights in the spectrum you don’t need a license. You can broadcast all the Britney Spears and Mariah Carey your little heart desires.

    I’m guessing all these sorts of issues have been explored elsewhere?

  16. This all comes a little too late for Cleveland’s alternative low power radio station:

    It’s a shame, because the market there is dominated by TERRIBLE stations… And as for encroaching on anyone else’s signal, that wasn’t a problem with Grid Radio. It only reached a very limited geographic area, and you were fortunate to be able to tune in when you could.

  17. Warren,

    How many mV/m is trespass? What size of sideband in KHz is trespass? AM trespass or FM trespass? How about TV trespass?

    What technical specs must recievers meet? What carrier frequencys are allowed? How much deviation from the standard carrier frequencies is allowed?

    I favor low power but to say we can do without the FCC to sort out the technical issues is probably absurd. You would get a different type of stereo encoding in every city. That drives up the cost of radios.

    Having reasonable technical rules drives down the cost of a broadcast system.

    The FCC has done a pretty good job on the technical side. To a large extent it drives the regulatory side.

  18. BTW I was Chief Engineer for WTAO for a time and have designed military recievers and transmitters.

    I am familiar with the range of technical issues involved.

    James Meritt,

    The abundance of air is not proof that there is no water scarcity. The same goes for spectrum. Just because fiber can carry a THz worth of spectrum is not proof that the “ether” between 550 and 1600 KHz is unlimited in the US of A.

    OTOH regulation of fiber ought to be zero or minimal compared to the AM band.

  19. M. Simon-

    I was not saying that the AM radio band alone, or the FM band alone, or the TV bands alone were “unlimited” in their capacity, regardless of the capacity of IP or broadband carriers. Rather, that all of the bands that are now, or could potentially be, put to broadcast use, offer enough capacity to satisfy the needs of all serious (and many not-so-serious) comers; said another way, anyone who really wants to broadcast over-the-air can find a place in the available bands, operating without appreciable interference to previously-existing outlets, without the help or blessing of the FCC. The fact is that there will always be only a relatively few people that will want to get involved, most of them won’t want to use and won’t be able to afford high power for extended coverage area, and so there can be a high degree of channel-reuse throughout the country, increasing opportunities for participation in the broadcast bands without objectionable mutual interference.

    Your comment that without the FCC to set technical standards, “You would get a different type of stereo encoding in every city. That drives up the cost of radios,” is odd for someone who was a chief. You ought to know better than anyone that, while it is possible for multiple formats to be developed (I’m thinking specifically of the AM stereo debacle), the formats that do not provide sufficient cost-benefit ratio will not make it into receivers, precisely BECAUSE they would drive receiver costs too high, and so will not last long at radio stations. On the other hand, when there are multiple formats with similar costs and benefits, normal market forces take over: the deep-pocket receiver manufacturer may adopt a standard and proceed to flood the market, cooperating with friendly transmitter manufacturers and radio stations in the partnership dance we have seen a jillion times before. Or, some technologist may find a way to mass-produce a circuit that supports several formats at once, which then finds its way into a standard receiver decoder chip that multiple manufacturers can use to be able to advertise “total compatibility.” Or some industry group (NAB, e.g.) may investigate and endorse a standard, acting as non-governmental go-between to get all the interested parties co-operating. And so forth.

    My point is that the government is not necessary to set technical standards, although broadcasters in this and many other countries are used to governments doing so, and some can hardly imagine a different situation. I think it was, in fact, this reflexive reliance on “mommy and daddy” for technical permission to proceed, which most torpedoed the development of AM stereo. The government waffled and demurred for years; the industry players were used to government setting the standard and were furthermore wary of what might happen, should the government finally decide to get involved and then back a horse that would invalidate the choices of many a radio station or receiver manufacturer. So there was neither the experience nor the impetus for the industry to solve its own problems efficiently, although several of the private-sector mechanisms I mentioned above did kick in toward the development what became the prevailing standard. In particular, I have been impressed with the quality of the Amax standard, which arose from the smoking rubble of the AM stereo wars, though not to any great enthusiasm and probably too late to fend off the completely incompatible (and apparently half-baked) IBOC digital AM standard that the FCC recently approved. Here is a case where a mature technical standard of quality was rudely shoved aside in favor of a flawed, incompatible, “sexy, new technology” standard that promised much and still has a long way to go to deliver…

    I could go on about this, but why bother? As I said earlier, the internal politics and techno-jargon of the inbred broadcast industry are of very little interest to those outside. But there is little I have seen in 30 years of participation in and/or observation of broadcasting to convince me that whatever good the FCC did couldn’t have been done as well or better by a non-governmental concern; or that the command-and-control FCC has otherwise served as anything but a barrier to broadcast industry progress.

  20. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/25/2004 03:59:56
    Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.

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