Kennard's Low-Power Radio Plan Blocked by Congress

Congress has blocked a controversial plan that might have launched approximately 1000 low-power community radio stations. On Thursday, April 14, the US House of Representatives voted 274-110 in favor of a bill that would effectively kill development of about 80% of the stations. The vote was a blow to Federal Communications Commission chairman William Kennard, who has been a staunch supporter of the community radio movement, and a gift to the National Association of Broadcasters, which has long opposed low-power radio.

"Special interests triumphed over community interests today," Kennard stated, adding that he was "particularly disappointed that National Public Radio joined with commercial interests to stifle greater diversity of voices on the airwaves." Perhaps wary of seeing its market diluted by the new stations, NPR had supported the legislation against them.

The bill requires the FCC to conduct additional tests for interference before issuing new licenses, although the agency has already determined that the new stations pose minimal technical threats to existing commercial broadcasters. It also stipulates that, after the new tests are completed, Congress must still approve any changes in technical or licensing standards—an unlikely eventuality, given the NAB's lobbying power. The bill passed on Thursday takes technical decisions away from government specialists and puts them in the hands of legislators.

The low-power radio movement has been a thorn in the FCC's side since the days of Reed Hundt, Kennard's predecessor. Hundt's administration vacillated between tolerance and suppression in dealing with violators, many of whom were local churches and other community organizations without the funding for commercial radio licenses. Kennard, perceiving a trend toward homogenization in broadcasting, has pursued a program of accommodation for the "radio pirates," in the belief that diversity on the airwaves is a self-evident good. In January, the FCC authorized the new stations for churches, schools, community groups, local governments, and independent citizens.

The White House has supported Kennard's campaign to boost community radio. Low-power radio stations transmit usable signals up to 10 miles under optimum conditions. The majority can reach a couple of miles at best, making them truly neighborhood stations. Some observers have stated that the NAB's concerns over possible interference are actually a smokescreen for commercial concerns. The controversy took a nasty turn recently when Representative Billy Tauzin (R-LA) accused some FCC staff members of "criminal activity" because they had faxed position papers on the issue. A similar bill has been drafted for the Senate's consideration. Presidential hopeful Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has yet to take a position on it.