FCC Takes Up Low-Power Radio to Add Diversity to Airwaves

But could it just be a diversionary tactic?

Coincidences in Washington? Try this. Just when the Federal Communications Commission is circulating a draft order to loosen media ownership rules, it voted today to take final steps to create lower-power FM radio, a new class of noncommercial radio stations aimed at increasing diversity on the radio airwaves.

While the two FCC actions may seem unrelated, they are connected by a long-standing debate in Washington about whether there is adequate ownership diversity among the nation's airwaves. Recent data from the FCC shows it is lacking, with people of color owning just 3.6 percent of full-power TV stations and 8 percent of radio stations.

On the one hand, lower-power radio promises to increase diversity on the airwaves by allowing communities and organizations to operate hundreds of low-power, noncommercial radio stations. But the media ownership order being circulated, critics argue, would have the opposite effect by lifting the cross-ownership ban on owning radio and newspapers in all markets and TV and newspaper in the top 20 markets.

The connection was not lost on the FCC, which scheduled the low-power radio item today as a counterpoint to mounting criticism from public interest groups, unions and civil rights organizations ratcheting up their objections to the draft media ownership order.

To kick off the meeting, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski departed from commission procedure and brought in a little political muscle, handing off the podium to two lawmakers, one from each side of the aisle, who worked on the 2010 law clearing the way for the creation of community radio.

"We are going to start this meeting in a most unusual way," Genachowski said, introducing Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.). "[It's] a big step to empower community voices, promote media diversity and enhance local programming."

Even though the procedures voted on by the FCC would pave the way to process more than 6,000 applications from communities and minority groups sitting at the agency, it will not divert criticism of the draft media ownership order that blasts the agency for offering what's basically a giveaway to big media owners.

"[The FCC's action] doesn't answer our critique," said Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press, which earlier this week held a press conference with several unions and civil rights groups to protest the FCC's draft order. "It's hard to attack [lower-power FM radio], but it doesn't address the harmful impact of the rule changes. The FCC is saying 'look over here' while ignoring the powerful impact the media ownership rules have on diversity."