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volume 3
august 2000

Who's got the power?


  Challenges to low-power radio
by Rachel Anderson
  Though the Federal Communications Commission has opened the application rounds for low-power radio, the low-power radio movement in the U.S. now faces serious threat from congressional action. On April 13, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 274 to 110 for HR 3439, the Radio Preservation Act, a bill that would severely limit the FCC's ability to establish a low-power radio service. Rachel Anderson reports on the new challenges to low-power radio.
1 Faye Bush, president of the Newtown Florist Club in Gainesville, Georgia, hopes that her organization will soon have a new tool for community outreach: the radio. The Newtown Florist Club was established nearly a half century ago by women in the African American community to provide flowers and support to local families during bereavement. In time, its role expanded to include advocacy and education around environmental, social, and political justice issues affecting the community. Now the club would like to take its causes to the airwaves and use the radio as a forum for local discussion.
2 A recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission is intended to expand the ability of groups like the Newtown Florist club to communicate with their communities. On January 21, the FCC voted to authorize a new class of non-commercial radio licenses with coverage radiuses of between 1 and 3.5 miles (7 miles in diameter). The FCC, like many Americans, has grown increasingly concerned about the effects of consolidation on localism and the diversity of voices in the media. Low-power radio is seen as a vehicle for local public dialogue on the increasingly crowded and commercial airwaves.
3 "If we were to get a station, it would really make a difference in the community," said Newtown's Bush. In addition to community affairs, the Newtown Florist Club would use a low-power station as a creative outlet for local youth and as place for the community's growing Hispanic population to broadcast in Spanish.
4 Bush explained there is a dire lack of African-American owned media outlets in Gainesville. As a result, the Newtown Florists and others are at the mercy of the local mainstream commercial media to carry news about issues that are of importance to them. "We don't have anything that we are in control of," said Bush. She feels that a radio station could go a long way towards providing people in her community with a sense of greater empowerment.
5 To assure that the new stations contribute to diversity and community-oriented broadcasting, the FCC's Report and Order establishing a low-power FM service imposes several ownership restrictions on potential licensees. No current radio station owner or anyone with other media interests — including newspapers or cable systems — will be allowed to own LPFM stations. Also, during the first two years of LPFM license eligibility, licensees will be limited to local entities that are physically headquartered, or have a campus, or have 75% of their board members residing within 10 miles of the station.
6 The FCC's Low-Power Report and Order was met by great enthusiasm from many schools, churches, governments and other community-based organizations. In the first application wave, which closed June 8th, the Commission received over 700 low power FM radio applications from schools, local governments and community-based organizations. But established broadcasters, both commercial and non-commercial, have responded to the FCC's plan with fierce opposition. The powerful National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and National Public Radio (NPR) argue that the creation of new stations would result in interference with existing stations.
7 On April 13, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 274 to 110 for HR 3439, the "Radio Preservation Act," a bill that would severely limit the FCC's ability to establish a low-power radio service. The legislation was introduced by Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-OH), who received nearly $100,000 from communication and electronic industry PACs in 1997-1998.
8 While broadcasters from around the country have deluged their Members of Congress with calls and letters asking for an end to low-power radio, few of the thousands of groups that submitted comments to the FCC in support of the low-power proposal even realize that their hard won victory at the Commission now faces serious threat from congressional action. "Low-power supporters who wrote the FCC in support of LPFM think that they've done their job and that the battle is over, but it is not," said Cheryl A. Leanza, deputy director of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm that has advocated for low-power radio.
9 The fight for low-power has now moved to the to the Senate. Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) has introduced a companion bill (S. 2068) to Oxley's bill in the House that would eliminate low-power radio entirely. Low-power opponents, like Senator Gregg, argue that the potential interference caused by the new class of radio licenses outweighs the benefit of increased public access to the airwaves. "The desire of the FCC to provide a forum in which community groups can express their views is laudable, we believe that this forum already exists in a multitude of sources," wrote Senators Gregg and Rod Grams (R-MN) in a letter to their colleagues in the Senate.
10 Despite countless stories from communities like Ganesville that want greater public access to local media, established broadcasters continue to claim that there is plenty of access to the media. "The Internet is serving the type of audience [FCC Chairman] Kennard is trying to serve very well," said Dennis Wharton, Senior VP of Corporate Communications for the NAB. While the Internet does provide an important new venue for independent voices, Mr. Wharton's comments seem to overlook the fact that recent statistics indicate that at least half of Americans still do not have access to the Internet in their homes.
11 To complicate further the battle for low-power, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, has introduced a compromise bill (S. 2518) that would allow the FCC to license low-power stations, but with some caveats. Senator McCain's bill would permit the introduction of low-power FM transmitters as long as they did not cause harmful interference as determined by the National Academy of Sciences. While low-power radio supporters applaud Senator McCain's efforts to protect the service, they don't endorse his legislation because it would allow commercial stations to sue low-power broadcasters for damages if they create any interference to established stations.
12 With 36 senators already in support of Senator Gregg's S.2068 — the bill that would eliminate low-power FM — the promise a of new community media outlet could be squashed before the first round of licenses are even awarded. As the Newtown Florist Club eagerly awaits the FCC's review of their application, they have no idea that attempts are underway in the Congress to assure that only established broadcasters will have access to the public airwaves.
13 In the face of fierce opposition from such power opponents, what are low-power supporters to do? "The most important thing people can do is write their Senators," said MAP's Leanza. "A lot of Senators are not hearing from supporters of LPFM. They are open to listen, but they need to hear from people who care about Low-power radio. Right now they are mostly hearing things against it from broadcasters."
14 Several organizations have jointed together to attempt to tell Congress the other side of the low-power story. Lead by the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, groups from the American Association for Persons with Disabilities and the NAACP, to the National Council of Churches have all signed onto a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle expressing their opposition to Senator Gregg's "Radio Preservation Act." Low-power FM, the letter says "will help ensure that all segments of society have the opportunity to participate fully in the emerging communications environment."
Related links:
Next About.Com Microradio and Free Radio
Next FCC's Low Power FM Radio Service Page
Next Leadership Council on Civil Rights
Next Media Access Project
Next The Microradio Implementation Project
Next National Lawyers Guild Committee on Democratic Communications
Next Prometheus Radio Project
  This article was published previously in: Digital Beat Extra, July, 18th, 2000 and is reprinted with permission.
  2000 / 2001 © Benton Foundation / Soundscapes