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A proposal now making its way through Congress would destroy diversity in radio.

Digital Radio: When More (Bandwidth) means Less (


In the 1930s Hitler gave away 9 million AM radios to the German public, all calibrated to one channel. People who listened to forbidden stations such as the BBC were sent to concentration camps. Every single radio blared the Nazi party line; you could not escape it anywhere.

Something similar is happening with radio in America today, but without swastikas and death camps. A coalition headed by the National Association of Broadcasters would eliminate choice on the airwaves just as effectively as any dictatorship. Their lobbyists are pressuring the Federal Communications Commission to force approval of a two-part proposed regulatory standard called "In-Band, On-Channel, Digital Audio Broadcasting" or IBOC-DAB.

Digital is a new way of using electricity to preserve and now transmit music, voice, and data. It uses bits and bytes to code the signal on compact discs and computer chips, instead of smoothly varied signals taken from vinyl records, for example. Currently, radio stations transmit in analog, but take the music from a digital format.

IBOC-DAB would cause mandatory sunsetting or prohibition of existing analog FM stations, making them broadcast in digital. Adding insult to injury, it would allow big stations to more than double their bandwidth.

To see how this works, go to a major FM station and click once in either direction, the signal is still there. Click twice, it vanishes. Under the proposed rules, two clicks in either direction would be taken and the powerful station would bleed into other signals.

The effect is like the Nazi radio giveaway because it destroys by law our ability to receive weaker or more distant signals. All Germans, whether they liked it or not, heard Hitler 's latest speech. Under IBOC-DAB, repetitive programming, blaring ads, and irritating call-in schemes broadcast at 40,000 watts would dominate.

Commercial radio content has little to do with Nazism, unless the latest bleating teen idol brings you to a murderous rage. But IBOC-DAB would knock out what many listeners prefer: the smaller noncommercial college, community and religious stations.

An FCC vote in February this year created more legal channels for noncommercial stations called Low-Power FM or LPFM. The commission determined it wouldn't interfere with existing signals to do this. Thousands of petitioners nationwide, including the Richmond City Council, supported the new stations, which would have a maximum of 100 watts.

The NAB filed suit, claiming LPFM reduces audio quality, despite the fact that their own 1996 studies proved it wouldn't. Looking deeper, an explanation could be a 12 percent drop in radio listenership in the 1990s, caused probably by excessive lack of programming innovation. Rather than compete fairly, they want to steal the space competitors might use, and at the same time make it too expensive for them to operate.

What happens to WDCE 90.1 at the University of Richmond with its $20,000 yearly budget? It costs $60,000 to $200,000 to change to digital. Will WDCE and other college stations disappear?

One survivor would be National Public Radio, which oddly enough opposes LPFM. Such a viewpoint seems to go against everything NPR stands for.

Some say diversity would be provided by Internet radio. That's fine at home, but not in cars: Imagine the signal dropout and gurgling sounds of cell phones. Nor can everyone afford a computer or Internet connection. That's like saying, "Let them eat cake," as Marie Antoinette pronounced when she heard the peasants had no bread.

Expanded bandwidth is supposedly for improved signals, but according to Sony Corporation's official FCC statement, only a fraction of the requested space is required for digital audio. Big Broadcasting's real agenda looks eerily like a money grab; they will sell wireless Internet Broadband, pagers and other services on that extra bandwidth. IBOC-DAB literally "jams" weaker stations and fattens radio station coffers in one go.

FM radio space is finite, like public access to water. An outcry would certainly occur if big hotels were given all the prime beachfront. Or suppose there are only a dozen distribution boxes in a city to place newspapers, and the six big publishers in town got together and demanded the other slots. Then they required all newspapers to have a full-color press run of 200,000, or go out of business. Ridiculous, you say, but this is exactly what is happening to radio.

Since Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, opposes LPFM, perhaps he should look up "cartel" and "corporate welfare." The IBOC-DAB bill is so drenched in pork and skewed by special interests that it would offend anyone, Republican or not. Congress might as well write checks directly to big broadcasting and not bother with the deception. In the same dirty coalition are the companies that make radios; they love the fact that existing equipment might become obsolete.

Thomas Paine would have supported LPFM, along with George Washington, Martin Luther King, and Ghandi. I can't imagine Stalin, Castro and Hitler supporting it, and the National Association of Broadcasters are opposed.

You won't hear about LPFM in the mainstream media because a handful of companies own many major television, radio, and print outlets. They keep it in the dark by the nature of their business. But if you go on the Internet and type in "LPFM" or "IBOC-DAB" you will find plenty of information.

Having radio lobbyists decide radio issues is like putting foxes in charge of chicken security or letting Standard Oil handle oil business competition. In truth, you'd be far more likely to hear Churchill's riveting "Blood, Sweat, and Tears" speech on a German radio in the Second World War than an LPFM discussion on mainstream radio today.

Brooke Saunders is a co-founder of the Floating Folk Festival.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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