Jul 16, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)

The Crowded Air Waves

There are no rules of fairness or reasonableness which regulates competition.

John G. Jounson and John G. Milburn (for the Standard Oil Co.) 1909

On Saturday, May 15, I looked forward to listening to the Chicago Lyric Opera's presentation of Gounod's Romeo and Juliet, on FM radio station KCHO, with two of my favorite singers, Roberto Alagna and Angela Ghiorghiu. It was hard to hear and impossible to record because of a background of rock music coming from KZYZ. KZYZ broadcasts at 91.5MHz and KCHO, the station that was presenting the opera broadcasts, on 91.7. I phoned the studio and was told that there was nothing wrong and that all of the readings were where they should be. My reception of KCHO is fairly good only in the evening. It is impossible in the morning and most of the afternoon.

I live in a remote area of Mendocino County, California. My house is on the top of a mountain at 4,000 ft. above sea level. Consequently, I can receive broadcasts that people who live in valleys can't. When I first moved here, some 19 years ago, I was able to receive two stations that broadcast mostly classical music. One came out of Arcata(KHSU) and the other from Chico(KCHO). Both are college stations and they feature the usual National Public Radio(NPR) news programs and other features. The rest of the time is taken up mostly with classical music. KCHO now broadcasts 65 hours of classical music per week. I don't remember how much music KHSU had, because it is now gone.

In the time that I have lived here, two public radio stations have come into existence. Both are mostly talk. KMUD is mostly talk and whatever music young people listen to nowadays, plus a small amount of classical music. The other, KZYX, is almost the same, except that they have about 14 hours of classical music(3 hours, four days per week in the morning and one two hour evening program).

I grew up with AM(Amplitude Modulation) radio. It was the best that there was at the time and it was always full of static.The sound quality was almost as good as a 78rpm record which, by today's standards, is miserable. If you wanted to listen to quality sound, your only option was to listen to it live. Sound quality really doesn't matter when it comes to talk. Static actually adds a bit of color to the spoken voice.

Then came Frequency Modulation(FM) which was touted as the answer to a music lover's prayers. FM was static free and the sound quality was limited only by the quality of the radio that you happened to own.

For a while the air waves on FM were full of music of all kinds; but not any more. Now the FM frequencies are mostly talk, which doesn't need FM at all. And the air waves are so crowded that, even with the most sophisticated receiver, you are lucky if you can get your music without it being added to by adjacent stations. In short, it's a mess. The only refuge that a music lover has from talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, is to have your own recorded music. Unfortunately that can get to be a bit expensive and, even with the best of collections, you are still missing a lot.

The Federal Communications Commission(FCC) regulates the allocation of radio frequencies. If a new station wants to come into being, it submits an application for a particular frequency. If FCC approves, that is the frequency it will broadcast on. In the case of KZYX, they applied for and received 90.7MHz. This is one step removed from KHSU(90.5), which wiped out that station from this area. When they applied for a second station(KZYZ), which broadcasts the same programs as KZYX, they asked for and received 91.5MHz, which is one step away from KCHO(91.7).

The Federal Communications Commission(FCC) is supposed to regulate the air waves. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be doing much for lovers of classical music. In other words, while the FCC has managed to protect everyone's right to be heard, it has has not done very well with regard to people's right to listen to the music of their choice. Music stations have been replaced by talk radio and religious programs. I suspect that the only hope for me will be subscriber-supported satellite-transmitted radio. I hope that it comes soon.

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