Management of a small-scale community broadcasting FM station in Japan;
Case study: FM West Tokyo.

International Geographical Union, Commission on Communication Networks and Telecommunications, Commission Annual Conference and Pre-Congress meeting, Kwangju, 8-11 August, 2000.


Management of a small-scale community broadcasting FM station in Japan;
Case study: FM West Tokyo

Harumichi Yamada

Community broadcasting is a low wattage FM broadcasting service begun in 1992. It is designed to serve a small-scale community within a single municipality, in contrast to other radio stations which typically cover the territory of a whole prefecture, or several prefectures.

The history of FM radio broadcasting in Japan dates back to as early as 1957. However, the number of FM stations was very small until the 1980s, and is still relatively small. In the Tokyo area, for example, there were only two FM stations available until 1985, one operated by NHK (the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation) and the other by FM Tokyo (a commercial station). In the early 1980s, following general de-regulation trends in the field of broadcasting and telecommunication, several important changes were made in the licensing policies for FM broadcasting. In 1985, a new commercial FM station was started in Yokohama, and since then many other stations have been licensed to serve various prefectures. While the Ministry of Post and Telecommunication (MPT) was in the process of de-regulating, the so-called "Mini FM" boom occurred in the first half of the 1980s. Mini FM refers to a station which broadcasts with a very low-power FM transmitter, thus reaching only a very limited area; i.e. 500m from the transmitter. Most Mini FM stations were located in busy downtown areas, or at tourist attractions. With limited power, "mini FM" was not seen as a broadcasting service, and was thus free from the various laws and regulations which control the conventional FM radio stations.

By the end of the 1980s, following the de-regulation trends and practice of Mini FM, the MPT had begun formulating regulations for a new type of local broadcasting. In 1991, the MPT announced the legalization of community broadcasting, an FM radio service whose coverage is limited to a single municipality. Community broadcasting was fully legislated in early 1992, and the first station appeared in Hakodate by the end of the same year.

At first, many aspects of community broadcasting were controlled under strict guidelines. Transmission power was limited to only 1W, while major FM stations were licensed up to 10kW. Although close cooperation between the community broadcasting company and the local municipality was expected, the maximum share of the company owned by the municipality was limited to 30%, on the theory that the broadcasting station should be independent from the government in order to avoid political intervention. On the other hand applicants for community broadcasting license are required to attain the consensus of the local community including the municipal administration. Based on this logic, the MPT early guidelines allowed only one community broadcasting station for each area.

These restrictive regulations were gradually abolished in the mid-1990s. In 1994, two stations in Obihiro, Hokkaido were licensed simultaneously. Later, the MPT started to license the second stations for several cities where community broadcasting service was already available. In 1995, following nationwide petitions from Japan Community Broadcasting Association (JCBA), the transmission power limit was raised to 10W to enlarge the area of coverage. Later in 1999, the limit was raised further to 20W. In 1995, after the the Hanshin-Awaji (Kobe) earthquake, many municipalities and other public local organizations began to look to community broadcasting as an effective way to disseminate information during disasters. The limit on the municipality's shareholding was abolished in the same year. Since then, the MPT has begun granting licenses to companies whose shares are principally owned by local government authorities. The number of community broadcasting stations increased especially rapidlly during the period 1996-1998, and 135 stations were on the air as of March, 2000.

With limited coverage, and thus limited value as an advertising medium, most community broadcasting stations are facing difficulty making ends meet. In many cases, local municipal office and other public bodies play important roles both in establishing and in maintaining the broadcasting service. In some cases, however, private companies show a strong commitment to community broadcasting through investment and other means. The case of FM West Tokyo, Tanashi, Tokyo, is a good example where the private sector plays a larger role than the public sector. The largest shareholder in FM West Tokyo is Tanashi Tower Company, which is a member of Tanashi Familyland Group, a local business syndicate. FM West Tokyo is owned mostly by this syndicate, which runs various recreation related businesses. Founded in 1987, Tanashi Tower Company constructed the Tanashi Tower (West Tokyo Sky Tower) with the financial support from the national govenment and related public bodies. Since 1989, the company has managed the Tower, which serves as a control tower for MCA (Multi-Channel Access) and other wireless communication systems. One of the condition for the MPT's support was that Tanashi Tower Company should contribute to "local informatization". This somewhat abstract request had been suspended for several years, but finally in 1996, the company promised the MPT to establish a community broadcasting service in order to repay the MPT for its enormous help in the construction of the Tower, even though this service makes hardly any profit.

The annual deficit of FM West Tokyo is not large. However, efforts are made to curtail production costs. For example, the number of paid staff is strictly limited. In order to compensate for the lack of professionally paid manpower, the station welcomes unpaid volunteers to join in program production. The contribution of volunteer staff plays an important role in almost all the programs of FM West Tokyo. Roughly, one third of the active volunteer staff live in Tanashi city, and another third come from the neighboring area, where there is some chance to catch the broadcast signal from Tanashi. The rest live in areas where FM West Tokyo's service is not available. The extensive commitments of those non-resident volunteers to local community broadcasting may raise the question of whose needs these stations really serve.

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