New life for little radio?

Opposition to Big Media could invigorate low-power FM radio.

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As the political backlash against media consolidation mounts on Capitol Hill, one of the issues that first sparked the movement is back in the news: low-power FM radio, or LPFM.

“It absolutely helped inspire the [current] movement,” says Michael Bracy, executive director of the Low Power Radio Coalition. “Low-power radio was one of the first, if not the first, issue that really united citizens on a grass-roots level and fully engaged them at the FCC. It really lit a fire.”

That fire is now being felt in the ongoing political battle over the larger issue of media consolidation.

The brainchild of Clinton’s FCC chairman William Kennard, LPFM was an attempt to counterbalance the extraordinary radio consolidation that occurred following the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In 1999 he wanted to establish hundreds of low-power radio stations across the country that would be noncommercial, on the fringes of the dial, and cover a radius of a mile or two at the most, strictly neighborhood operations. They were to be run by volunteers — church groups, schools, music junkies — who wanted to return radio to its roots.

Commercial broadcasters, who claimed LFPM would unleash an “ocean of interference” on the AM/FM dial, adamantly opposed the initiative. Engineers for the FCC, who studied the issues in-depth, insisted technical objections were bogus. In the end, lobbyist for the National Association of Broadcasters, with unexpected help from National Public Radio, convinced Congress to drastically cut back the number of licensed LPFM stations by 80 percent, as well as commission an outside study to determine the level of static the stations would create.

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Three years later the preliminary results of the study have just been released. While suggesting some minor changes, the report indicates LPFM stations would cause very little interference for existing stations on the dial. “We’re still vetting it, but the immediate reaction is it’s a complete vindication,” says Bracy. “The government spent two years wasting time and taxpayers’ money to reach the same conclusion most broadcast engineers would’ve told you is pretty simple science.”

A spokesman for the NAB, which pushed for the interference study, did not return calls seeking comment.

“The NAB will challenge it,” suggests Mark Fratrik, a vice president at BIA Financial Network, an investment firm specializing in broadcasting and telecommunications, and who worked at the NAB during the LPFM battle. “But if the study’s aboveboard and there’s no interference with low-power stations, then there’s a problem defending the prohibition on them.”

An NPR spokesperson says the study is still under review. She insists NPR “never opposed LPFM,” but simply raised technical questions about interference.

“The reality is, behind the scenes NPR was doing everything they could to kill low-power radio,” counters Bracy. “They actively lobbied against it.” He says public radio’s concerns were particularly influential among some key Democratic members of Congress who opposed LPFM.

“It’s time for NPR to put its money where its mouth is,” adds Pete Tridish, with the nonprofit Prometheus Radio Project, a low-power advocacy group. “After reviewing the study it’s time for them to say, ‘OK, our concerns have been met. We’re in favor of low-power radio.’ But if their real concern over low-power radio is about competition for funding or listeners, that’s a whole other ballgame.”

By demanding a time-consuming interference study in 2000, LPFM opponents hoped in part the issue would not come back to Congress until there was a Republican president and a Republican-appointed FCC chairman. The irony is, the political environment on Capitol Hill regarding consolidation, media ownership and diversity has clearly tilted in favor of LPFM advocates in recent months, as more and more politicians question the wisdom of massive deregulation.

Worse, says Bracy, with the release of the new engineering report, the same politicians who relied on broadcasters’ bogus claims about LPFM interference “will realize they were sold a bill of goods.”

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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