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FCC Gives OK To Digital Audio Broadcasting

On Thursday, the FCC gave FM broadcasters the ability to launch digital radio multicast services without seeking prior approval from the commission.
More than 1,000 stations are already broadcasting in digital and some 300 have applied to air multicast services.

The move opens the door for multicast radio services, including pay services, to expand the radio's market footprint.

The vote to approve the service was unanimous, but Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps expressed concern about the impact of the additional multicast radio channels on the public interest and media consolidation.

The FCC asked for comment on what, if any, additional public interest obligations should apply to digital radio beyond those that already apply in the analog radio world. At the FCC's monthly open meeting, Copps said the commission left the order unfinished by not addressing the public interest concerns or making it clear how the indecency rules would apply to the new service.

After the meeting, a staffer suggested the indecency rules would apply as they did in analog, but it was still unclear whether that extended to pay multicast radio service.

Not surprisingly, the National Association of Broadcasters was pleased with the move clearing the way for so-called HD radio:

"NAB applauds Chairman Martin and his FCC colleagues for taking a significant step today in advancing the already budding HD Radio technology," said NAB President David Rehr in a statement.

NPR called the move "historic."

“Today’s action by the FCC has reinvigorated public radio’s public service mission,” said Arthur Timko, general manager of WEMU FM Ypsilanti, Mich. His was the first public station to switch to digital, and plans to be one of the first to multicast, according to NPR.

Sharing Copps displeasure with putting off consideration of additional public interest obligations was activist group Media Access Project.

MAP was also unhappy that there was not explicit encouragement to broadcasters to use the multicast channels to increase the number of diverse voices--particularly those of women and minorities-- in the market.

FCC Chairman Martin has encouraged DTV multicasters to add diverse voices with a proposal to give must-carry status to any TV station multicast channel leased to "designated entities." .