Radio for the People.

We've reached the point in our American media evolution where it becomes sensible to ask, (a) where did Glenn Beck come from, and (b) how do we get him to go away? Passed out of the House and headed for a likely floor vote by winter break is community radio legislation that helps explicate the first and suggests an answer to the second. No, not the dread Fairness Doctrine. This is a plan to grow the radio dial, not babysit it. The plan would open up the radio spectrum to broadcasters living within spitting distance of their transmitters -- offering up a dash of local diversity to liven up our current steady diet of placeless robojockery a la Glenn Beck.

How we got here has to do, in part, with Congress' befuddlement over science, creating an opening for broadcasting lobbyists waltz right through. After the 1996 Telecom Act loosened media ownership restrictions -- so that Beck's syndicator Clear Channel, for example, ballooned from 16 stations to 1,200 -- the Federal Communications Commission responded by licensing low-wattage broadcasters to use the FM dial to communicate with their communities. The National Association of Broadcasters and its members -- with the notable inclusion of NPR -- complained that those teeny broadcasters interfered with the integrity of their signals. Congress, never exhibiting much of an understanding for the wireless radio spectrum they can't even see, rather unceremoniously yanked the FCC's jurisdiction over low power FM until further notice.

Almost a decade later, that notice seems to be on its way. Science has made bunk out of signal integrity worries, and new FCC chair Julius Genechowski is generally being given wide political berth in Congress, where members on both sides of the aisle retain an admiration for (if not child-like awe of) what the Obama campaign was able to achieve using technology under Genechowski's lead. And that looks likely to add up to a new chance for local radio.

--Nancy Scola

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