WASHINGTON, D.C. — Folk-rockers the Indigo Girls performed on Thursday at a Capitol Hill news conference aimed at discouraging lawmakers' attempts to quash
low-power FM radio stations.
Equipped with just a banjo and mandolin, the pair sang "Get Out the Map" and "Ozilline" (RealAudio excerpt) for a crowd of mostly young congressional staffers. Indigo Girl Amy Ray said commercial, mainstream radio has become a limited and narrow vehicle for music.
"Now, we don't enjoy that much commercial support at all," she said.
"It's really because the way radio is set up now — if you're in,
you're in, and if you're out, you're out."
The duo were joined by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.;
Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.; and others who said low-power stations would
inject diversity into monochromatic airwaves.
In January, the Federal Communications Commission voted to create a new
class of low-power radio stations to give local community groups,
churches and schools more access to the airwaves. Low-power — or
micro — radio is much less expensive than full-power FM, with
start-up costs ranging from $600 to $2,000.
"The spectrum of the airwaves belongs to the public," Sen. Richard
Durbin, D-Ill., said. "Low-power radio will enable many community
groups, high schools, labor unions, etcetera to reach out to individuals over the airwaves."
But a bill pending in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H.,
would annul the micro-radio policy and prevent any similar plans.
The National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio both
support Gregg's bill, the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, saying
that low-power stations would add unacceptable interference on already
overcrowded radio bands.
The NAB claims signal and static "bleed" from the micro stations will
harm commercial stations' listenership. But a study conducted by
Virginia Tech engineering professor Ted Rappaport, a widely acknowledged authority on signal interference, found that only 1.6 percent of the planned low-power stations would interfere with existing stations.
NPR is concerned about low-power stations because 90 percent of its
stations are on the already overcrowded "reserved band" of the FM dial,
according to NPR spokesperson Siriol Evans, who also said that NPR
stations are more susceptible to interference because their signals are
processed differently from commercial stations.
"NPR has just sort of forgotten their roots," Kerrey said. "When I was
governor of Nebraska, the big commercial stations used the same argument to stifle public choices over the airwaves as NPR makes today."
Jenny Toomey of the Future of Music Coalition, one of the organizers of
Thursday's rally, said, "Even the small act of increasing one
community's access to another through a single low-power station sets a
precedent which cannot be ignored. ... Radio needs to be opened to
represent the great diversity of incredible independent musicians who
often have little to no radio access. The bandwidth is a national
resource that should be available to serve the needs of the community as well as the needs of the corporations who dominate it presently."
McCain has introduced a bill that would uphold the FCC decision, but
that would also allow full-power radio stations to sue micro stations
that interfere with their signals.
"Instead of bringing low-power FM licensing to a halt, we should ensure
that low-power FM licensing continues while being fairly balanced
against the concerns of existing broadcasters," he said.
But low-power radio advocates say the threat of a costly legal battle
with a commercial station will discourage many from starting a micro