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Community radio from your kitchen

Nickolaus Leggett would like tens of thousands of people to have their own radio stations. All it would take, he figures, is $500 worth of equipment for each, a tiny portion of the airwaves and the approval of the federal government.

The radio stations Leggett has in mind would be small, no more than 1 watt of power each, or just enough juice to broadcast a signal for about a mile in any direction. But that would be enough, he says, to bring about a revolution in community communications as civic groups, small businesses and talkative individuals pumped out their messages.

"Citizens have a right to get on the airwaves one way or another," he says. ". . . This is a great way to foster that."

Until recently, Leggett's proposal for "micro" stations languished in the back files of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates use of the public airwaves. Lately, however, Leggett, a technical writer from Reston, Va., has begun to attract some powerful friends _ as well as some powerful enemies _ with his idea.

FCC chairman William Kennard, who is eager to boost minority ownership of broadcast stations, has championed the Leggett proposal within his agency. In February, Kennard put the idea out for public comment, a first step in the FCC's lengthy approval process. When the comment period expires in May, Kennard said, the FCC could move to formally adopt it.

This month, Kennard talked up the idea with the people most likely to oppose it, the country's commercial broadcasters. Speaking to the annual meeting of the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas, Kennard said micro-broadcasting could be one way to counter the falling rates of station ownership by African-Americans and other minority groups, and could inspire church groups, neighborhood organizations and small businesses to offer programing that ever-larger radio conglomerates ignore.

"I am interested in opportunity, and I am concerned that there are fewer opportunities for people to use the public airwaves to speak," Kennard said. "We've got to take a close look at this."

Selling the idea to the broadcasters' lobby isn't likely to be easy. Although some of the new stations might compete for advertising with established broadcasters, the association says its primary objection is technical rather than economic.

The organization, which represents about 10,500 AM and FM stations, argues that adding thousands of new stations would cause interference with the signals of established stations. Some broadcasters at the conference cited interference problems caused by unlicensed "pirate" stations, which illegally use low-power transmitters to broadcast into a community.

Edward O. Fritts, the NAB's chief executive, says it would be "folly" for the FCC to add new stations when the radio airwaves are already "overly congested."

Leggett's response: "Malarkey."

An amateur ham radio operator for 30 years, he says there's no evidence that micro stations broadcasting on licensed AM and FM frequencies would interfere with other stations.

Since the signals from the new stations wouldn't be strong enough to overlap with each other, he said dozens of them could share the same small portion of airspace in each city, much like cellular phone transmissions now do. Devoting just a small piece of the AM and FM band for this purpose, he says, would create "thousands and thousands" of new stations nationwide.

"We could use this for community-watch programs, or maybe to tell people that a tree has fallen down on Maple Street," said the 53-year-old Leggett, who came up with his plan last year after reading a newspaper article about a "pirate" station. "Some of it could be (Spanish-language) programs or news of interest to people" in inner-city neighborhoods, he said. "Whatever the community wants."

Leggett has proposed licensing would-be micro-broadcasters without charge, with preference given to people residing in the community in which the station would operate. He also has asked the FCC to set minimal technical requirements, so stations could be operated with equipment costing as little as $500. To prevent corporations from accumulating licenses, he would limit the number of micro stations one owner could have.

Kennard, a Democratic appointee, said he will review all the public comments before coming to conclusions on specific issues.

The creation of thousands of specialized, hyper-local stations would counter the radio industry's consolidation trend. A handful of giant radio companies _ some of which own hundreds of big-city stations _ have emerged since Congress enacted a law in 1996 eliminating restrictions on the number of stations a company can own nationwide.

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