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Mixed Signals

NPR says it supports low-power FM, but it's joining with industry lobbyists to drive a stake through the heart of grass-roots broadcasting.
 
 
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Three months ago radio activists were euphoric when the Federal Communications Commission, over the strong objections of influential commercial broadcasters, voted to roll out low-power radio (LPFM), a new class of 10 and 100 watt community-based FM stations. Since that vote though, the ad-hoc LPFM coalition of educators, church leaders, grass-roots entrepreneurs, school administrators and minorities have discovered firsthand why their primary foe, the National Association of Broadcasters, is regarded as one of Washington's most powerful players.For months the NAB, not accustomed to losing policy debates with the FCC, has mercilessly pounded the commission and Chairman Bill Kennard over LPFM. The NAB claims that the FCC relied on "junk science" in order to pave the way for new low-power non-commercial signals. NAB president Eddie Fritts said Kennard's interest in "social engineering," in the proposed public interests of low-power radio, has blinded him to its effects on the industry.The NAB was extremely influential in crafting the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which uncorked a radio station buying spree that made owners very, very rich. Lately it has been working the Hill again, telling congresspeople that tiny micro-radio outlets (able to reach a couple of miles at most) would unleash crippling interference on the FM dial. The NAB has lined up a broad coalition of politicians who are poised to essentially kill off LPFM by passing the so-called "Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000," strongly favored by the NAB.As LPFM's fate now slowly twists in the wind (GOP House leaders hope to bring the bill to the floor for a vote next week), advocates are upset by a surprise opposition to their cause. They expected to fight commercial conglomerates in their David vs. Goliath battle -- the Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasters of the word, which, combined, operate more than 1,000 radio stations nationwide, have fought LPFM every inch of the way. But in the end National Public Radio, that self-styled voice of democracy, could be the one that drives the stake through the heart of low-power radio."I'm disappointed to be fighting NPR on this and I don't understand their opposition," says Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the non-profit Media Access Project, a strong supporter of LPFM. She charges NPR, "has been critical in putting a false friendly face on the opposition to low-power radio, and that's a great, great tragedy."Michael Bracy, director of the Low Power Radio Coalition, agrees. "NPR is willing to give lip service to low-power radio and supports its goals of diversity on the airwaves. But behind the scenes NPR's been incredibly destructive by trying to alert listeners to alleged threats of LPFM, by lobbying in Congress and impeding the process at FCC. When you look at everything NPR supports and stands for and represents, you'd hope they wouldn't oppose community access to radio," says Bracy.Late last week NPR, the mighty non-profit corporation which counts more than 600 member stations nationwide and is heard by 14 million listeners each week, joined the NAB by publicly supporting the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act. The move surprised and miffed Kennard, who fired off this shot: "I am surprised that an organization which has done so much to promote opportunities for Americans to be heard on the airwaves would join with the special interests in curbing this new service.""Our position is not ambiguous," counters NPR president Kevin Klose. "We do not oppose low-power radio. We wouldn't possibly oppose more public service. We think low-power radio can be compatible with existing public radio. I just don't want two years from now to be facing endless unresolved interference issues between low-power and public stations."As Klose suggests, the heated debate over LPFM now comes down to a technical question of interference. The FCC insists new LPFM stations on the so-called second adjacent channels to existing signals would not cause significant interference. (i.e. adding an LPFM at 90.5 would be fine, even though an existing station rests two channels away at 90.1.) Opponents backing the bill in Congress insist a third channel distance must be maintained. (i.e. 90.7, with the nearest signal at 90.1) But because the FM dial is so crowded already, insisting on third channel protection would eliminate 75 percent of all possible locations for new LPFM outlets. That means that, whereas the FCC had hoped to license hundereds of stations, it would only be able to license about 70 nationwide.The FCC is seen as nation's leading expert on FM spectrum management, and it spent more than a year reviewing potential interference and conducting lab tests. LPFM opponents, following the lead of the NAB, have adopted the position that, caught up in Kennard's enthusiasm for LPFM, the commission simply fell down on the job. (An NAB spokesperson could not recall the last time the organization challenged the veracity of an FCC technical finding, conceding, "it's very unusual.")In fact, NPR declared the commission's engineering findings were "significantly flawed in numerous respects." Now in a first, NPR is joining others in calling for a third party to determine what sort of static LPFM would create for existing stations. Despite the fact that Kennard has made it clear any legitimate claims of interference will be dealt with swiftly as the first few dozen micro-radio station go live, NPR is instead asking the commission to prove in advance that LPFM will never interfere with any existing signals.The technical argument strikes some as hollow. "It's absolutely a red herring," says Leanza at the Media Access Project. "NPR realizes it would not look good to oppose LPFM so they claim technical reasons that would eradicate the service." Billy Winslow, with the United Church of Christ, another LPFM supporter, insists "The FCC ought to know what works and doesn't work when it comes to engineering. That's their stock and trade. Why would chairman Kennard propose it if it were a problem?""It's a bogus argument," adds Mel Buxbaum, president of San Diego Public Radio Inc., which is not affiliated with NPR. With permission from the FCC, Buxbaum recently launched a test-case LPFM, broadcasting a low power, 100 watt signal in San Diego County. XLNC's classical, non-commercial station has been operating on a second adjacent channel for three months and Buxbaum says not one broadcaster has complained about interference. "We made it clear in our proposal to the FCC; if anybody voiced legitimate complaints we'd shut down that day. Nobody has. And believe me we would have heard within the first three hours." Buxbaum says because of new microelectronic technology, the old third channel proposal, embraced when radios were run on tubes, is badly outdated. "It's not a valid argument, and we've proven it."As for NPR's vocal opposition to LPFM, "It's always disappointing when you see somebody pulling up the drawbridge; 'I've got mine and nobody else is coming in.' It's the moat mentality," says Buxbaum. "But they see things like what I'm doing, all-classical music, as competition. They're afraid I'll draw their listeners."Nonsense, says NPR's Klose. "Some in the industry wanted to gore low-power radio, we didn't do that. We aren't criticizing anybody. We have a set of very reasonable issues that can be addressed. The goal is a conflict-free future between low-power and public radio." That said, Klose will not back off the deal-breaker; crucial third channel protection. "That is a real issue for us."Not everyone in public radio agrees with NPR's position, though. "I think we need diversity in ownership and programming. And I think the FCC is doing what they should be doing: maximizing the airwaves for public benefit," says Michael Brasher, manager of Albuquerque, N.M., public radio station KANW, and president of the Albuquerque City Council. "I'm comfortable with the FCC proposal in terms of interference. But I'm real uncomfortable with NPR's position. I'm concerned they've weighed in so heavily on this issue. I'm also concerned NPR is relying on totally flawed engineering data. Information provided by NAB which is specious at best, and inaccurate at worst."Brasher is referring to a now infamous CD created by NAB engineers used to simulate the type of migraine-inducing interference LPFM would cause on the FM dial. The CD became a favorite lobbying tool for the NAB up on the Hill. After finally hearing it, Kennard dubbed it "fraudulent," and part of a "misinformation" campaign. "Clearly, you have an industry that does not want to have new voices coming onto the airwaves." The FCC's top engineer Dale Hatfield insisted "the CD demonstration is misleading and is simply wrong."The NAB stands by the controversial recording, but does NPR? Klose insists the organization, "relied on our own stations and our own testing. The NAB's CD is between the NAB and the FCC." But in a March 14 correspondence to members, an NPR staffer wrote, "NPR technical staff, after a careful evaluation, considers the NAB CD demo of LPFM interference to be a credible and very useful representation of what could happen in the field under the FCC's LPFM decision." Members were then directed to NAB's Web site where they could access their own copies of the interference recording.Despite its cordial image, public radio has not been averse to playing a little hardball on the low-power issue. Last year when the FCC was accepting comments on LPFM from all interested parties (more comments were filed regarding LPFM than for any other FCC initiative on record), representatives for an Oregon public radio station railed, "the commission has proceeded in the worst possible way with this [issue], cutting corners, relying on wishes, naivetŽ, and procedural irregularities. The commission must base its ultimate decision upon real evidence, not the hopes and unfounded predictions of LPFM proponents and [FCC] staff."Public Radio's Regional Organization warned "LPFM will result in the jeopardization of the substantial federal, state and private investment in public radio," and that "the unintended consequences" on public radio would be "devastating." Interestingly, the organization also urged the commission "to advocate another distribution mechanism, such as Internet webcasting."Early on in the low-power debate NPR lawyers also suggested the Internet -- not the FM dial -- was a better forum for LPFM, as did longtime FCC critic Sen. John McCain. But NPR representatives have backed off that argument, perhaps after realizing over 100 million Americans today still don't have access to the Internet.Meanwhile, writing a recent editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a Minnesota Public Radio VP warned citizens that LPFM interference would decimate a news reading service for the blind run by public stations. (Kennard and the FCC insist it will not.)Public radio's message has certainly been heard in Congress. There, low-power advocates knew they'd encounter resistance from NAB-friendly legislators such as the retiring Commerce Committee Chairman Tom Bliley, R-Va., who expressed annoyance that the FCC didn't simply abort its LPFM plan once broadcasters objected. (In a curious bit of political one-upsmanship, the two men vying to fill Bliley's chairman position in the next Congress, David Oxley, R-Ohio, and Billy Tauzin, R-La., are busy trying to outdo each other when it comes to burying LPFM.)What LPFM backers didn't see coming was the opposition from the left, which is where NPR has had such an impact. "Members sympathetic to the NAB were approached by that organization, while members sympathetic to radio diversity and alternative media have been approached by public radio," says Leanza, at the Media Access ProjectAn aide to Sen. Ron Wydon, a liberal Democrat from Oregon who's co-sponsoring the anti-LPFM legislation in the Senate, confirms it was "the tremendous outpouring from public radio" that prompted the senator to act.Bracy at the Low Power Radio Coalition notes, "Until NPR's comfortable with LPFM, it's hard for some in Congress to go public with their support. Especially for progressive Democrats. NPR is their targeted audience." One of those progressives who's still supporting LPFM is House minority whip David Bonior, D-Mich,. According to one of his aides, "NPR must be having an impact, because other members are citing them. It's not helpful that they're not on our side." Says Klose at NPR, "We haven't been shy about informing members where we stand."Meanwhile the NAB seems thrilled to have public radio on board for the fight, prominently mentioning the non-profit organization at every turn. In a March 24 press release, the nation's largest broadcasters, with their attention fixed on Capitol Hill, wanted to make one thing clear: "It is important to remember that opposition to LPFM comes not just from NAB, but from National Public Radio."About the writer Eric Boehlert is a senior business writer at Salon.