Congress Near Squelching Low-Power Radio?

Is community radio at death's door? More than 1000 churches, schools and community organizations nationwide have applied for licenses to operate 10W-100W FM stations. Despite a strong grass-roots movement, and the support of Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard, the low-power radio (LPFM) movement is about to be buried by the combined weight of the National Association of Broadcasters, National Public Radio, and their many friends in the US Congress.

Little noted by mainstream media during the election season, the move to license low-power stations has been stalled in Congress. Legislators now are considering a major appropriations bill to which low-power opponents have attached a rider that could prevent the FCC from licensing the new stations. Former presidential contender Senator John McCain (R-AZ) directed blistering criticism at the NAB/NPR coalition for leveraging the appropriations bill "to hijack and overturn the sound technical decisions by the government's radio experts," a reference to FCC investigators' refutations of complaints by the NAB that low-power stations could cause enormous interference problems with existing commercial stations. FCC analysts have dismissed the threat of interference from low-power stations, while NAB, in turn, has dismissed FCC reports as "junk science."

Low-power stations would have an approximate range of 1-10 miles, the latter under the best conditions and with maximum allowable power. The nation is already covered with "translator stations" that relay radio signals; these translators operate with similar output power to the new stations opposed by established broadcasters. Simultaneously, as stated in a recent FCC document (Docket MM-98-93) on "streamlining" rules governing FM radio, the agency has temporarily tabled the issue of "negotiated interference"—a provision whereby station owners would be able to buy interference rights.

Many observers believe that the technical issues are a smokescreen, and that the incredible resistance mounted by NAB/NPR is based on fear of losing their hegemony in the increasingly homogeneous radio market. President Clinton has urged leaders of both the Senate and the House of Representatives to drop the rider, but has not indicated whether he will veto the appropriations bill if the rider remains.

FCC Chairman Kennard published an opinion piece in the October 23 edition of the Washington Post in which he reiterated his support for community radio. An online petition drive to stop the rider has been created in its wake. Readers seeking more background on this important issue should read Eric Boehlert's "Mixed Signals," which appeared in the April 11 edition of Salon.com.

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