New FCC nominee brings ray of hope for low-power radio

It's apparently not his forte, but low-power FM advocates take his rise to heart anyway. Julius Genachowski, who once helped edit the Harvard Law Review under a rising star named Barack Obama, was officially announced as the President's nominee to the Federal Communications Commission March 3.

"I'm ecstatic about it," said Charles Clemons, owner of the unlicensed radio station TOUCH 106.1 FM. "It's another step in the right direction."

If approved by the Senate, Genachowski as FCC chair could signal a future where low-power FM stations in Boston could exist legally. Low-power FM stations are those that transmit with 100 watts of power or less, and there are dozens in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan already - though none are licensed. In recent decades they have become a 'veritable voice of the voiceless' serving communities in languages barely heard on licensed radio stations.

"Back in the 90s it was mostly radical white people," said John Anderson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois' Institute of Communications Research and author of the unlicensed-radio-focused DIYMedia.net website. "Once low power FM was approved [in 1999] a lot of these people bought into the idea of creating a service. When it was restricted in 2000, a lot of people just did it anyway… They were told that they couldn't do it and that just radicalized them."

Jean-Claude Sanon, the Haitian-born City Council at-Large candidate who airs the show "The Eye Opener" on licensed station WNTN 1550, estimates that in Boston there are close to a dozen unlicensed stations operated by and just for the local Haitian community alone.

"It's unfortunate that folks have gone about it in the wrong way," said Sanon. "Yet it should demonstrate that there's a need to open up the doors."

Many observers estimate that there at least 1,000 unlicensed FM stations nationwide, and there may be far more. Recently, the plight of the unlicensed station TOUCH 106.1 FM, calling itself "The Fabric of the Black Community" has brought attention to the cause, and Mayor Thomas Menino and the City Council are taking notice.

Late last month City Councillors Sam Yoon, John Tobin and Chuck Turner offered a resolution in support of restoring the Low Power FM service originally envisioned by the FCC in 1999 - which would have allowed several thousand new stations nationwide - before the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act passed in 2000, cutting 80 percent of the opportunities and in particular, any possibility for urban stations.

And Menino is set to see TOUCH owner Clemons off when he starts a 'Walk for Power' from Boston to Los Angeles to draw attention to the need for Low Power FM opportunities. The date of his departure is tentatively set for this Saturday around noon, said Clemons this week. An attempt to leave earlier was foiled by the inclement weather. Those interested can get updates at walkforpower.com.

The political support is all the more remarkable given that Clemon's station received a forfeiture order from the FCC in May 2007 that fined him $17,000 and ordered TOUCH off the airwaves.

With Genachowski in office, say LPFM advocates, the prospect of restoring the opportunity for some 3,000 to 4,000 new stations is faintly visible on the horizon, where under the Bush Administration it was merely a pipe dream.

"It is certainly the most optimistic FCC team we've seen in eight years," said John Anderson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois' Institute of Communications Research, and author of the unlicensed radio-focused DIYMedia.net website. "Is it possible that we could see Low Power FM this year? My opinion is no. In my opinion it would be 2010 at the earliest before a filing window would be open at the FCC. We might be playing the waiting game for a while."

Genachowski has some bigger fish to fry before LPFM becomes a priority, and he may have to familiarize himself with the issue, said Anderson. The massive transition to digital television is underway, and Genachowski is known to be a strong advocate of Net Neutrality, which would prevent broadband providers from controlling which content their subscribers can or cannot receive. These issues would likely be prioritized over LPFM.

And even if the opportunity-making Local Community Radio Act of 2009 passes (Congressman Michael Capuano is one of over a dozen sponsors), Genachowski and two other Democratic commissioners will still have to change FCC rules to allow the stations, and then create an application process.

And unfortunately, even though Clemons is championing the LPFM cause, the new bill could not make TOUCH legal. In 1999, the low power FM legislation had an amnesty clause, but it was removed in 2000 and the new bill does not aim to replace it. Anyone who runs an unlicensed station now is banned for life from participating in the direction or ownership of a legal low power FM station.

"I liken it to Rosa Parks and the civil rights act," said Anderson. "As if the civil rights act applied to everyone but Rosa Parks."