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The Digital Beat -- 11/15/2000

America Waits . . . For Low-Power radio
by Rachel Anderson

As America waits for a new president to be chosen, the country continues to face other less talked about political ambiguities. In late October, with several important appropriations bills still in limbo, Congress passed a continuing resolution which allowed the government to operate while members of the Senate and the House went home to campaign for re-election. Many community groups around the country have been closely following the fate of one of the contested bills, which, if approved, would all but destroy the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) proposed low-power radio program (LPFM), meant to diversify radio ownership and give communities greater access to the airwaves.

Early this year, the FCC voted to authorize LPFM, a new class of non-commercial radio licenses that would enable schools, churches, and other small organizations to run their own radio stations serving small geographical areas. The Commission has already received hundreds of applications from groups around the nation hoping to become non-profit community broadcasters.

However, established broadcasters, both commercial and non-commercial, have responded to the FCC's plan with fierce opposition. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Public Radio (NPR), which both argue that the creation of new stations would result in interference with existing stations, have devoted large sums of money to lobbying against the new class of radio licenses.

In late October, intense broadcast industry pressure resulted in Congress adding anti-LPFM language to the Commerce, Justice, State Appropriations bill that would reduce the number of new low-power radio stations by 60%-80%. If this budget bill, which has passed both the House and Senate, is signed into law, only a few dozen new LPFM station licenses will be handed out, instead of the hundreds of new stations that could have been granted licenses under the FCC's original provisions. Additionally, the legislation would also only grant licenses on a temporary basis - subject to further review and possible revocation by early 2001.

A month earlier, the FCC had addressed many industry concerns about LPFM in a reconsideration order. The September order generally affirms the decisions the Commission reached earlier but also:

  1. Reduced the total number of LPFM licenses that will be issued in order to protect existing services
  2. Creates a complaint procedure if significant interference with existing services occurs
  3. Clarifies who may obtain a LPFM license
  4. Clarified rules about educational and locally-originated programming.
[For a full summary, see the Media Access Project's summary.]

When the anti-LPFM language was attached to the Commerce, Justice, State Appropriations bill, President Clinton promised a veto on the grounds that it could harm low-power radio. White House spokesman Jake Siewert identified the bill as an attempt to "undermine our effort to encourage community based low power radio, something that a lot of Christian groups have spoken out in favor of. But, strangely enough, Republicans seem to want to undermine that."

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain was the only member of Congress to speak out in defense of LPFM: "I stand before these community-based organizations, these religious organizations, these people throughout these small communities all over America, and say: I apologize. I apologize to you for this action behind closed doors; that we're gonna deprive you of a voice of a very small FM radio station."

Sen. McCain has also been very vocal about fellow Republicans making telecommunications policy through the Appropriations process. "By any reasonable interpretation, the Appropriations process has been highly irregular, with the use of legislative gimmickry designed to avoid debate, subvert the regular legislative order, and obscure from the American people special interest-driven legislative riders and pork barrel spending," wrote Sen. McCain.

To follow the legislative efforts concerning LPFM, visit the Media Access Project's Web site. For further background on the creation of low-power radio, see Benton's Low-Power Radio: Medium of the Masses and Who's Got the Power?: Challenges to Low-Power Radio. The FCC's web resource allows citizens to both follow the creation of the service and get information about how to start their own stations.

One community group looking to start its own low-power station is a Methodist church in Decatur, Illinois, which wants to offer discussion forums, local arts and cultural opportunities intended to unify the community in the wake of recent divisive racial incidents. And a Northern California community ravaged by floods each year is looking to low-power radio as a potential flood alert system. If, however, congress passes the Commerce, Justice, State Appropriations bill with the anti-LPFM language attached, it is unlikely that either of these groups will get a chance to utilize the airwaves towards their goals of community information and expression. At a time when so many are concentrated on who will lead our country for the next four years, some eyes are on Congress, looking for it to confirm, not combat the FCC's leadership in giving the public access to a diversity of voices and viewpoints on the airwaves.

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