Congress reins in FCC’s effort to fill radio dial with low-power stations

Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Congress derailed an ambitious Federal Communications Commission plan
to grant low-power broadcasting licenses to community groups, schools and
churches with the approval of a bill buried deep into budget legislation passed
last week.

Observers view the passage of the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act
of 2000 as a direct slap to the commission, which
had determined earlier this year
that the radio dial could make new room for stations operating between 10 and
100 watts of power.

Provisions of the act effectively restore broadcast safeguards of
spacing stations at least two radio channels apart on the dial, known as
third-adjacent channel protection. The measure, expected to be signed into law
by President Clinton, also grants Congress the power to determine the standards
by which low-power stations can get licenses.

The act’s passage disappointed FCC Chairman William Kennard but
doesn’t completely wipe out his hopes for a radio dial peppered with a
diversity of low-power broadcasters. An agency spokesman said a few such
stations might be launched within the parameters of the new law.

“The staff has been reviewing the applications making sure they
follow the requirements: Are they non-profit and community-based? Do they
follow proper engineering?” David Fiske said in a telephone interview.
“We’re still going ahead, we might find one that can adhere to the
restrictions of third-adjacent channels.”

Fiske hinted that the first slate of low-power radio applications
might be approved this week. Successful applicants would still have to pass
through another set of administrative hurdles, such as public hearings and
construction permits, to get licenses.

The FCC carved out spaces on the broadcast spectrum for low-power
radio stations last January, in the hope that the new class of stations would
allow a greater diversity of voices and viewpoints to be transmitted over the
nation’s airwaves.

The approval created two new types of noncommercial, educational
licenses: one for stations with 50 to 100 watts and one for stations with under
10 watts.

To secure a low-power radio license, a group must be a governmental
agency or a private, nonprofit organization or association that doesn’t
have ownership in an existing station. No group will be allowed to own more
than one low-power station nationwide until at least 2002.

The applicants must also show that their organization is based,
operates a campus or has three-fourths of its membership within 10 miles of the
station they seek to operate. The licenses will be valid for 8-year, renewable
terms if the station broadcasts at least 36 hours each week.

To date, the FCC has accepted more than 1,300 applications from 20
states for the new licenses and announced the opening of yet another filing
window for Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South
Carolina, South Dakota, Wisconsin and American Samoa.

But the nation’s largest broadcasters, represented by the
National Association of Broadcasters and the Corporation of Public
Broadcasters, lobbied Congress and filed suit in the court system to find ways
to set aside the agency’s new rule.

Last month, a federal judge in the District of Columbia heard oral
arguments in the broadcasters’ case against the FCC. But he hasn’t
ruled yet on the validity of the new licensing plan.

But it appears that the broadcasters won in Congress to the discontent
of low-power advocates.

“This means that behind-the-scenes, political favors to the
powerful subverts thoughtful policymaking in the public interest,” said
Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project, which had organized
support for low-power radio. “For Congress to take action is an
unprecedented level of technical meddling into an area where the FCC poses
unusual and particular expertise.”

The measure, passed Dec. 15, would restore the interference standards
in place before the approval of the low-power licensing plan, thus reducing
— but not completely eliminating — the number of new stations. The
bill would allow the FCC to conduct demonstrations in nine metropolitan,
suburban and rural areas to see what happens when the interference standards
are relaxed.

President Clinton had expressed strong opposition to the act,
particularly when it was a stand-alone bill. But with it attached to an
appropriations bill already peppered with compromises and it being so late in
the legislative session, the president has to sign the measure, a White House
aide said.

Some low-power advocates say they understand.

“An appropriations rider is an incredible thing to beat,”
said Michael Bracey of the Low Power Radio Coalition. “We are convinced
that the White House did everything they could to support this issue. But at
the end of the day, the White House’s choice was either sign this or shut
down the government.”

Bracey commented on what he called a “dramatic contrast”
in the way Congress approached low-power radio and the way the FCC considered
the issue. He noted that the FCC’s low-power rules came after nearly a
year of public comment and replies from thousands of interested citizens,
businesses and organizations.

“The FCC made the rules after building a large record,”
Bracey said in a telephone interview. “The House had only one
subcommittee hearing before it became a fast-track legislation. The Senate did
not even hold a hearing. It did not even vote on the low-power

A leading senator and former presidential candidate had similar

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., voted against the appropriations bill,
saying he disapproved of the billions of dollars in pork-barrel money attached
to the measure without debate. McCain also denounced the effort to stick the
Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act onto the bill.

Pia Pialorsi, a spokeswoman for the Senate Commerce Committee, which
McCain chairs, said the senator sent several letters to Senate leaders urging
them to remove the low-power radio rider from the appropriations bill because
it, too, had not faced proper debate.

“He’s very disappointed that it was included, and he will
fight to appeal it next year,” Pialorsi said in a telephone

But many of the nation’s leading broadcasters, including
National Public Radio, cheered the measure’s passage, even as a rider to
an appropriations bill. They faulted the FCC for relying on poor engineering
studies and approving a plan they know would create undue interference on the
radio dial.

“Throughout the FCC’s rule-making process to create a new
low-power FM service, we have cited LPFM’s potential interference to the
services of full-power stations, including vital radio reading services for the
blind,” said a joint statement by Kevin Klose, president of NPR, and Ben
Martin, president of the International Association of Audio Information
Services. “This is the practical, rational way to achieve the laudable
goal of compatibility between existing public radio stations and the new,
low-power service.”

Edward Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters,
agreed that the new law allows low-power radio to go forward without the
interruption of existing service.

“We are pleased that Congress has protected radio listeners
against additional interference that would have been caused by the FCC
low-power radio initiative,” Fritts said in a statement.

The new act would allow the FCC to restore the entire low-power
licensing program but only after the agency conducts a new battery of
engineering tests to show that the signals wouldn’t create undue

Leanza of the Media Access Project criticized such provisions as a
waste of government resources. Numerous FCC studies, she said, already
demonstrate that a considerable number of low-power stations could be launched
without hindering the broadcasts of full-power stations and services.

But Leanza noted, as did the FCC, that a few low-power radio stations
could emerge even under the new law.

“Although service will be cut back by as much as 80%,
there’s still an opportunity to show that low-power radio can be a
successful service,” she said in a telephone interview.

FCC spokesman Fiske said Kennard had hoped to approve a considerable
number of low-power licenses within the first year. But with the new law, the
chairman would be happy to see a handful start broadcasting soon.

“Once they are on the air, we will see how beneficial these
stations are to the community,” Fiske said. “And then we might see
even more.”

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