This story originally appeared in Summer 2000 issue of our New Rules Journal
Low Power Suffers a Low Blow
by Simona Fuma Shapiro
If you’re looking for a textbook case on the defeat of a grassroots initiative by powerful corporate lobbyists, the House’s passage, on April 13, of the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act (HR 3439) is it. HR 3439 has now made its way to the Senate. If passed, it will significantly scale back the Federal Communication Commission’s recent commitment to award low-power radio licenses to community groups around the country. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), an organization that represents the commercial radio industry and one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies, is behind the effort to stymie the creation of new stations.
The 1996 Telecommunications Act encouraged an unprecedented consolidation of broadcast media. Suddenly, a broadcaster was allowed to own an unlimited number of stations nationwide and up to eight in one market. As a result, it is now common for two or three companies to own 80 to 90 percent of the radio ad revenues in a market. In the Twin Cities, 13 of Arbitron’s 20 top-ranked radio stations will soon be owned by just three multinational companies.
Community radio activists have lobbied the FCC for years to license low-power (1-1000 watt)stations, which would create the kind of local programming remote corporate broadcasters fail to provide. But the FCC has been no friend to microradio over the years. In 1978 the commission outlawed low-power radio, which had been legal since 1948. During the 1990s, the FCC periodically raided and shut down hundreds of so-called “pirate” stations that had sprung up in defiance of their policy. Relenting to public pressure, the FCC issued an initial petition for LPFM rulemaking in February 1998. That year the commission received over 13,000 inquiries from “churches, community groups, elementary schools, universities, small businesses and minority groups” seeking to make their voices heard on the airwaves. Two years later, on January 20, 2000, the FCC announced its decision to license up to 1,000 noncommercial low-power stations.
In fact, the FCC’s decision was very conservative. The FCC had originally considered licensing three sizes of radio stations: 10 watts, 100 watts and 1000 watts. It also considered lifting third and second adjacent channel protections in order to make room for the new stations. These spacing rules create buffer zones around radio stations so that their transmissions do not interfere or “bleed” with one another. Third adjacent channel protections were mandated by the FCC several decades ago, when fixed and portable radios had less advanced tuning mechanisms. They meant that a radio station at 91.1 in a particular market would have a buffer zone of three channels on either side: 91.3, 91.5, and 91.7 would be free, and 89.5, 89.7 and 89.9 would also be free, so that the next available channels would be 89.3 and 91.9.
Engineersat the FCC and elsewhere agreed that for small 10 and 100 watt-stations, third and even second channel protections were unnecessary. But the FCC relented to NAB pressure and in its final decision lifted only the third-channel protection, keeping the second-channel protection in place. The FCC also decided not to license any new 1000-watt stations.
Despite these concessions, those who already possess radio licenses are determined to stop microradio at any cost. The NAB continues to argue that the new stations will cause interference with existing ones. They have been circulating a CD on Capitol Hill that purportedly demonstrates what interference from low-power stations would sound like. They are also behind the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, which recently passed by 274 votes to 110.
The bill passed the House in a modified version that reflects the “Dingell-Wilson” amendment. The Dingell-Wilson amendment has been presented as a compromise that”saves” low power radio, because it does not ban the service altogether but simply reverts back to the third-channel protection the FCC had lifted. In fact, it cuts the service drastically. If the FCC’s plan allowed for between 1,000 and 3,000 new stations nationwide (with approximately 250 in the top 60 markets), the bill passed by the House would allow for a few hundred, with some estimates as low as 70. Virtually none of these new stations could be in major markets. Needless to say, the NAB is pleased with the amendment. Low-power supporters are not.
FCC Chairman William Kennard has correctly stated that the NAB’s interference claims are a “red herring.” First, because the FCC set much higher interference protections than the engineering studies would have warranted. Two separations between broadcast signals are more than adequate with today’s modern integrated circuit design and filtering technologies for FM receivers, especially when one of the broadcasts is as weak as 100 watts or less. (A typical large commercial station broadcasts at 100,000 watts.)
Second, there are currently 312 full power stations operating under FCC authority without third adjacent channel protection – many of them without second adjacent channel protection – and there have been no complaints about interference, according to the FCC. In fact, NAB members fail to mention that in 1996 they lobbied the FCC to relax third adjacent channel protections to benefit their own stations, saying that the standard was “overly restrictive.”
TheNAB has also found allies in nonprofit groups like National Public Radio and the International Association of Audio Information Services(the national association of reading services for the blind.) These groups argue that new LPFM stations could cause interference with FM subcarrier channels like those used to broadcast readings from daily newspapers to the blind on special radios. Subcarrier signals are more susceptible, the argument goes, because they ride on the outer edge of an FM station’s allotted frequency. However, there are numerous examples of FM subcarrier channels with only second adjacent protection that have reported no interference. If a low-power station does cause interference to one of these FM subcarriers, the subcarrier can be awarded a buffer zone on a case by case basis, without seriously scaling back the LPFM project.
When the Broadcasting Preservation Act passed the House, FCC Chairman Kennard remarked,”Special interests triumphed over community interests today.” He also singled out National Public Radio for opprobrium: “While the National Association of Broadcasters frequently opposes new competitive services, I’m particularly disappointed that National Public Radio joined with commercial interests to stifle greater diversity of voices on the airwaves. I can only wonder how an organization that excels in national programming could fear competition from local programming by these tiny stations operated by churches, schools, community groups and public safety agencies.”
And indeed, the LPFM movement is truly in the community interest. The stations will serve local communities because they will broadcast at 10 or 100 watts, meaning they can be heard for distances of only 1-10 miles. And the FCC will choose licensees from the pool of applicants in each community on the basis of established local presence, proposed hours of service and the amount of locally originated programming.
This concept harks back to the early days of radio – in the 1920s – when noncommercial radio stations outnumbered commercial stations two-to-one. It revives the practice of the 30 years after 1948, when the FCC issued class D low-power licenses to community groups, colleges and churches. It also fulfills the dictate of the Communications Act of 1934, which states that the “airwaves belong to the people.”
Fortunately,the low-power initiative is not dead yet. Public interest groups have launched campaigns in recent weeks urging citizens to contact their senators and ask them to oppose the bill. A companion bill, introduced in the Senate in February, has 29 cosponsors. Perhaps with enough of a public outcry, senators will act in the interests of citizens rather than one of Washington’s most powerful lobbies.
Simona Fuma Shapiro
Research Associate, Institute for Local Self-Reliance
© 2000 Institute for Local Self-Reliance