The feds who set the rules of the American airwaves are about to finally decide a territorial battle pitting tiny "low-power" frequency freedom fighters against establishment giants like NPR and the National Broadcasters Association.
The little folks want to open up lots more room on the radio dial for local community and school stations like the 100-watt WACC-FM at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield.
Tom Vesci, who's been operations manager at WACC since it got started a decade ago, says low-power FM stations like his offer the kind of local programming that is missing from most commercial radio these days. He also points out that these tiny operations are great for training students.
On the other side of the debate are bigger commercial and public broadcasting operators that want to use those spots on the frequency spectrum for "translator" transmission towers that can dramatically expand their stations' reach for radio listeners. And, they warn, letting the low-power dudes proliferate could "distort or interfere with" the big stations' signals.
The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to rule on the issue at the end of November, and the Lilliputians of the radio world are getting excited.
"It is looking very good," says Stephanie Thaw, director of operations for the Prometheus Radio Project, which is devoted to bringing more low-power radio stations to lots more communities around the nation.
"We won't know until the FCC meets on Nov. 30th," Thaw adds, "but we have reason to be very hopeful."
Carol Sisco, a vice president with Connecticut Public Broadcasting, says the big concern for public radio stations is that giving LPFM (as low-power FM stations are called in the trade) more slots on the dial could screw everybody else up.
"There is the potential to really distort and interfere with our signals," Sisco explains. She says the biggest concern is on "the lower bandwidth," between 88 and 91 on the radio dial, where most public radio stations have their signals.
The radio frequency dial in Connecticut and along the heavily populated East Coast is already crowded. For years, FCC regulators resisted pleas from community-radio types to allow more of them on the air because of concerns about signals overlapping and making it harder for listeners to hear broadcasts.
LPFM stations are only allowed to operate at 100 watts or less power, and that's only enough to allow them to reach local listeners up to a few miles away. Big commercial stations can use as much as 50,000 watts to pump out signals carrying their broadcasts sometimes hundreds of miles.
In the past, the FCC decreed that a radio station had to be at least four frequency locations (often called "clicks on the dial") away from a full-power station's spot on the frequency spectrum. Those clicks are a shorthand way of describing specific spots along the radio dial, with one click representing the distance between one frequency location and the next.
In January 2011, President Obama signed into law a bill that let the FCC open up more spots by narrowing the interference buffer zone to just three clicks between stations.
But low-power advocates urged the feds to go even further and allow their stations to be just two frequency spots away from a big station, which is something the FCC has allowed for some of those translator towers. They argue such a move would open up lots of new slots in urban areas where LPFM stations now seldom operate. That's the issue the FCC is supposed to rule on this month.
"We're anticipating something like 5,000 or 6,000 more frequencies" to be opened up if the FCC does what the low-power advocates want, says Thaw.
Mike Rice, president and CEO of the Connecticut Broadcasters Association, doesn't think many new non-commercial LPFM operations would be able to open up in this state even if the feds rule in their favor.
The CBA hasn't taken a position on this issue, in large part because it probably won't have much impact here whichever way the FCC goes.
"In Connecticut, very few of these frequencies would be available," Rice says. He says the radio dial in this highly populated area is so jammed with stations that the likelihood is only a few dozen new FM frequency slots might be opened up.
Rice says his personal concern involves some small, very local AM stations and whether they would be able to take advantage of any of those newly available slots on the FM dial.
Some of these smaller AM stations, even though they've been around for decades, aren't even able to broadcast at night, Rice explains. He says giving them slots on the FM spectrum would let them continue their programming round the clock.
Vesci says allowing more low-power stations is important because they can supply something that's in very short supply on the airwaves: "Localized programming. You're just not getting that any longer" from most commercial stations, he says.
Most radio stations these days that are owned by giant chains don't really have any live DJs, Vesci points out. Disc jockeys located in some distant city pre-record stuff and send it around to local stations so that it sounds like they're in your area. "It's not really local programming," he insists.
Right now, according to Vesci, there are barely half-a-dozen low-power stations operating in Connecticut, but he is hoping a favorable FCC ruling will open the door to much more in the way of truly local broadcasts.
In the end, according to Rice, the FCC's upcoming ruling is likely to mean a lot more to folks in the wide open spaces out West.
"This has a lot of traction in Montana [where the radio spectrum is much less crowded]," Rice says, "but very little here in Connecticut."
"It's so congested in Connecticut," he says. "It's really, really tight."