updated 2/20/2004 8:01:23 PM ET 2004-02-21T01:01:23

Low-power FM radio stations serving highly specific audiences in small areas don't interfere with broadcasts by large stations, federal regulators said Friday.

They said Congress should lift restrictions limiting the number of tiny stations that broadcast to neighborhoods instead of cities or regions.

The low-power stations "do not pose a significant risk of causing interference to existing full-service FM stations," the Federal Communications Commission said in the report ordered by Congress in 2000. Nor do the stations interfere with special narration services for the visually impaired, the FCC said.

Commercial broadcasters and public radio stations complained that low-power stations would interfere with their signals. Congress responded by setting strict buffers on the radio dial between the low-power stations and existing broadcasters, which in effect severely limited the number of tiny stations. However, lawmakers also told the FCC to study interference.

Proponents of the small stations say low-power radio helps bring diverse voices to the airwaves as a counterbalance to the increased consolidation of commercial stations.

There are about 300 low-powered stations on the air. Many are licensed to churches. Other license-holders include school districts, youth organizations, highway departments, environmentalists and fans of folk music.

By comparison, the nation's largest chain, Clear Channel, owns 1,200 stations.

'Overcrowded' dial?
The FCC originally proposed licensing as many as 1,000 low-power stations, which have a range of four to seven miles and operate at between 10 and 100 watts. Conventional FM stations can go up to 100,000 watts and be heard more than 50 miles away.

An official of the Media Access Project, a telecommunications law firm supportive of low-power radio, hailed the FCC study.

"After significant expense by the taxpayers, the scientists have reported on the same laws of physics that have always existed," deputy director Cheryl Leanza said. "These tiny radio stations are no threat to the current broadcast system. It is now time for Congress to take action based on that analysis."

A spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters dismissed the study as flawed. "Local radio listeners should not be subjected to the inevitable interference that would result from shoehorning more stations onto an already overcrowded radio dial," spokesman Dennis Wharton said.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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