McCain offers bill to restore FCC’s ability to bestow low-power licenses

Thursday, March 22, 2001

Sen. John McCain, moments before embarking on his perennial campaign to change the way Americans finance political elections, quietly introduced a bill to restore the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to offer licenses to low-power radio stations.

McCain, an Arizona Republican, faulted the lobbying efforts of the nation’s leading broadcasters for derailing an ambitious FCC goal to pepper the radio dial with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tiny, community-based radio stations. He says his measure would reverse a bill Congress passed in the waning hours of last session to scale back the FCC’s plan.

“The legislation strikes a fair balance by allowing non-interfering low-power FM stations to operate without further delay, while affecting only those low-power stations that the FCC finds to be causing harmful interference in their actual, everyday operations,” McCain said about his bill, called the Low Power Radio Act of 2001.

The FCC began carving out spaces on the broadcast spectrum last year in hopes that a new class of stations would improve the diversity of voices on the airwaves. The new licenses would allow noncommercial stations to operate between 50 to 100 watts of power or under 10 watts of power.

To date, the FCC has accepted more than 1,300 applications from 20 states and was expected to open another filing window last month.

But Congress derailed the plan by restoring broadcast safeguards — spacing stations at least two radio channels apart on the dial, known as third-adjacent channel protection. The Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, passed as a rider to an appropriations bill, also empowered Congress to determine safeguards by which low-power stations can get licenses.

McCain faulted the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio for mounting “a behind-the-scenes campaign to kill low-power FM radio without a single debate on the Senate floor.” He said his measure, at least, would allow for proper hearings on the issue.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said McCain’s bill was similar to legislation the senator offered last session without success. He noted that the previous measure had only one co-sponsor, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.

But Wharton said the NAB was monitoring the bill closely because of McCain’s influence as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and because the group feels the measure, if passed, would mean more interference on the dial.

“This bill deals with the policing of low-power radio after the fact,” Wharton said in a telephone interview. “It allows LPFM to go on the air, and then, if interference is a problem, to deal with it later. The proper time to deal with interference is at the onset, not months later.”

Wharton noted that even with the passage of the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, the FCC has been able to approve 255 applications for low-power stations in 20 states.

Low-power advocate Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of Media Access Project, said Congress should debate McCain’s bill partly because members were “hoodwinked” into passing the new law without debate or hearings.

In the meantime, she said the FCC had received only about two dozen petitions opposing applications for some of the 255 groups that successfully applied for low-power stations. That, she said, means that some 230 groups are simply waiting for their construction permits from the FCC.

“We’ve been waiting,” Leanza said by telephone. “It’s been a ridiculously long time for something that is an administrative formality.”

FCC officials didn’t return phone calls. But in past interviews, spokesman David Fiske has said commissioners usually don’t comment about pending legislation.

Michael Bracey of the Low Power Radio Coalition agreed that the FCC could still place new stations on the air despite the new law. But he said the backroom maneuverings of senators and broadcast lobbyists created a lot of unnecessary animosity.

Bracey also said that most of the new stations would be in rural markets, not urban ones.

“There’s about 600 groups who would have gotten stations if it wasn’t for that bill,” he said in a telephone interview. “But we really do want to make sure that our supporters will get behind these rural stations and give them resources, ideas and sweat equity to get them on the air.”

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