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Revisiting Low Power Radio

A congressional study that shows low power stations pose little or no threat to existing radio broadcasters.
 
 
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For the first time in memory, this past week has been a bad one in Washington, D.C. for enormous broadcast conglomerates.

The massive media ownership deregulation pushed through the FCC last month by Republican chairman Michael Powell generated a remarkable amount of resistance from a burgeoning, and relatively new, media democracy movement. Deregulation opponents had vowed to override the FCC by taking the fight to the Republican-controlled Congress. It seemed like a futile notion, but Wednesday, the powerful, Republican-run House Appropriations Committee panel took the first step toward doing exactly that, voting 40-25 to block the portion of the FCC's decision that expanded from 35 percent to 45 percent the percentage of national TV households one company's stations could reach.

The vote wouldn't affect other portions of the FCC decision, and it would still need to be reconciled with a Senate bill; the White House has vowed to veto the House move. Nonetheless, even if it goes no farther -- and it will - - the House vote is an important measure of just how widespread dissatisfaction with corporate control of America's media has become, and that such dissatisfaction transcends usual ideological labels.

But beyond the headlines, another development on the media democracy front last week may have far greater long-term implications for the ability of ordinary people to be heard on the airwaves.

Before Dubya came to power and Michael Powell assumed the FCC's reins, the media democracy movement that is now bedeviling him cut its teeth on another FCC fight -- Low Power FM (LPFM). A 1999 decision by the FCC, when it was under Democratic control, created a vast new category of non-commercial, low power FM stations. The stations were to be locally run, with a radius of about 2-3 miles, and promised to give access to the airwaves to thousands of community, church, and activist groups across the country.

It never happened -- at least, not as originally envisioned by the FCC. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Public Radio mobilized Congress to effectively gut the program by passing as law a more stringent set of technical requirements. The NAB/NPR bill eliminated over 80 percent of the proposed stations, including most of the ones in larger cities and towns. Commercial broadcasters, as well as NPR, claimed (despite the FCC's claims to the contrary) that the FCC's original criteria would create unacceptable interference to existing stations.

Congress bought the idea, and as a result, while some Low Power FM stations are now broadcasting, and many others are in the pipeline, only one open frequency for a low power station is available in any of the country's top 50 markets -- as opposed to over a dozen each that would have been available in some cities under the original proposal.

That was three years ago. Last week, however, results came back in from a technical study that Congress ordered as part of its legislation, a study intended to determine definitively whether the original, more lax FCC guidelines would in fact pose a threat to existing stations.

The verdict: almost never.

The study, farmed out by the FCC to Mitre Corp., conducted field research and also asked for listener feedback, using the relatively poor-quality analog receivers common in many households rather than the much higher-quality receivers the FCC had originally used to determine interference levels. The researchers still found almost no problems, either from complaining listeners or from their own field readings.

In the mostly rural areas where it has been available, the volume of applications for LPFM facilities has far exceeded the FCC's expectations, proving that there's an enormous demand for such voices. The FCC, of course, is now in different, more business-friendly hands, and is probably disinclined to revisit the previous commission's proposal. And in the intervening three years, big media corporations as well as NPR affiliates have rushed to install new translators that would now block some possible LPFM frequencies in larger cities. But the upshot is that media activists now have the data to go back to the FCC and to Congress demanding both that the LPFM program be expanded to its original scope and that a moratorium be placed on new translator applications until the LPFM question is re-examined.

More broadly, for years the NAB, as the lobbying arm of the country's largest media conglomerates, has had free run of Capitol Hill; it has been among the most effective of the trade lobbying groups, with "triumphs" like the appalling Telecommunications Act of 1996 to its credit. Its LPFM reversal in 2000 was another such triumph -- but now, media activists and other broadcast lobby opponents can use the LPFM example to discredit the piteous cries of well-heeled lobbyists.

The damage that LPFM would supposedly cause to broadcasters simply didn't exist, and the case for re-instating the original proposal is overwhelming. Now, with any luck, a powerful new form of community and neighborhood broadcasting can be made available to the vast majority of the country's people.

For over 70 years, publicly owned airwaves have been leased out essentially at no charge to a broadcast industry increasingly dominated by a handful of homogenous (and often dreadfully idiotic) voices. For the last quarter- century, radio and television have gotten farther and farther away from the notion of local programming, local ownership, and community service. Finally, the trend may be reversing.

Geov Parrish is columnist for WorkingForChange.com