Big radio bites back!

Major broadcasting companies and NPR are ganging up on low-power FM radio. Can John McCain save the day?

Published October 16, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

This is the story of how big broadcasting is trying to kill the low-power radio star.

To most ears, low-power radio -- 10- or 100-watt stations with a broadcast range of a few square miles at most -- sounds like a cheap, easy and democratic way of giving communities a small but potent voice on the dial.

But now, 21 months after the Federal Communications Commission first proposed creating a new brand of low-power FM radio stations, the initiative is fighting for its life.

It's being smothered at the request of broadcasters during a last-minute closed-door horse-trading session on Capitol Hill.

And holding the pillow on the patient's head is a surprising pair: the powerful National Association of Broadcasters -- and noncommercial National Pubic Radio.

The unlikely alliance had been maneuvering a bill through Congress that would effectively kill low-power radio. But unable to get it passed, the alliance is now working to attach its bill as a rider to one of the nation's 13 must-pass appropriations bills -- a legislative end-run that would turn the bill into law without Senate debate or a straight up-or-down vote on the merits.

Why the rush? Without last-minute congressional action to stop it, the FCC could begin doling out low-power radio licenses. And once low-power stations run by local schools, churches and advocates are on the air it will be politically uncomfortable for Congress to yank them back off.

Especially if the first stations disprove the broadcasters' central claim: that low power will produce serious signal interference.

The unfolding low-power showdown is marked with a host of bitter antagonisms, some of them surprising. First, die-hard grass-roots activists are squaring off against Washington's most feared lobbying group, the National Association of Broadcasters.

Second, a cat fight among public-media advocates is raging, with low-power proponents accusing the feel-good nonprofit NPR of selling out its principles in order to protect its spot on the dial.

And then there's the delicious prospect of an intra-GOP squabble, featuring low power's No. 1 fan, Arizona Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Commission, facing off against two big-broadcasting allies: Minnesota Sen. Rod Grams and New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg.

Can the NAB roll the powerful McCain, one of the most popular politicians in America? "That's very unusual, and risky," warns Sen. Bob Kerry. The Nebraska Democrat recently teamed up with McCain to publicly urge his colleagues not to attach a low-power rider to any appropriations bills.

But the closing days of Congress are notoriously unpredictable. Right now, the NAB's allies are keeping their rider plans quiet; they don't want public debate on the issue to arouse low-power activists. "We are cautiously optimistic," says Steve Behm, spokesman for Grams.

Grams' bill -- designed to throttle low-power radio -- is officially called "The Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000." Low-power opponents use language like that because of their contention that the new stations will cause interference with existing FM outlets. The FCC, no fan of underground media -- it has been fighting pirate radio stations with a heavy hand for years -- has dismissed these technical concerns.

Grams touts his bill (and would-be rider) as a compromise. It would allow the FCC to test low-power stations, but only in nine markets. Then, independent technical analysts -- from an as-yet-undetermined body -- would report back to Congress next year on interference issues. Congress would then have the final say. How congressional legislative staffers would be better able than FCC engineers to interpret analyses of radio spectrum management is not quite clear.

Even if it gives low power the go-ahead, Congress would then have to restart the authorization process -- with the NAB fighting it at every turn. And if by next year there's a Republican president who has appointed a new FCC chairman, low power's chances of survival would likely be zero.

"Grams' bill is an attempt to kill low-power FM radio," says Jim Farrell, spokesman for Paul Wellstone, Grams' Democratic senatorial colleague. "It's [a] remarkable [position] for a senator from Minnesota, where 63 groups have applied for licenses, one of the highest in the country."

Meanwhile, President Clinton remains opposed to the proposed rider. It's an "ill-conceived attempt to weaken community radio," says White House press secretary Jake Siewart. Vice President Al Gore also supports low-power stations, since they would "give voice to the voiceless," says spokesman Doug Hattaway.

But as the days pass, practical concerns boost the rider's chances. Appropriation bills pile up and nervous members of Congress become desperate to return home and campaign. Thus the likelihood increases that several appropriation agreements will be combined into a massive omnibus bill. With final omnibus votes often taken before the bills are read by many members, the chances of riders slipping through increase.

"The question of the day is how far will NAB's political allies go to circumvent the process," says Mike Bracy, executive director of the Low Power Radio Coalition.

Nebraska's Kerry thinks they'll go to the mat. "I'm not optimistic [about low power's future]," he says. "I'm afraid the broadcaster's association has a lot of power. In '96 we made it possible for them [through the Telecommunications Act] to own more stations, create greater consolidation, to have less diversity and make more money. Yet it appears there's no such thing as enough."

In terms of influence, the fight pending in Washington is lopsided. Low-power forces don't have the money to fund big-time lobbyists, much less a powerful senator's campaign war chest. Meanwhile the NAB shells out millions. The NAB is a fearsome presence even when faced off against other entrenched industry lobbyists, like cable television or satellite communications. This fight -- against a public interest -- is even more one-sided.

"Basically we're going to get our ass kicked," says one low-power advocate.

Yet if NAB is so powerful, why is low power still even on the table? After all, a trade group that has spent $10 million lobbying Congress over the last two years is not supposed to lose a high-profile policy debate to a patchwork coalition of pastors, professors, advocates and musicians.

The initial battle came during the FCC's comments period, held through most of '99. Usually of interest only to broadcasters and a small group of Washington communications attorneys, the comment period for low power attracted nearly 3,000 written submissions, the most in FCC history.

The problem for the NAB was that the only groups opposing low power were fellow broadcasters. Meanwhile, urging the FCC to allow the new format was an extraordinary spectrum of interests: groups like the Green Party, the United States Catholic Conference, the Library Association of America, the ACLU, the Council of Calvin Christian Reformed Church, Native American tribes and the United Church of Christ; celebrities like the Indigo Girls, Bonnie Raitt and Kurt Vonnegut; and the cities of Detroit, Seattle, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Santa Monica, Berkeley and Richmond, Calif., among others. (In the last few days, the NAACP, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the National Organization for Women have been lobbying Congress on low power's behalf.)

For example, out in northwest Wyoming in the remote town of Powell (pop. 6,000), Trinity Bible Church parishioners are planning fundraisers in order to raise $15,000 and $20,000 for a transmitter in case their low-power application is approved.

"They're excited," says pastor Dan Thomas. "This is a wonderful opportunity to have a community station." Turn on the radio in Powell, he says, and locals can choose from just four AM and four FM stations. "It's pretty remote out here so there is a need to meet. We plan on having local programming and live broadcasts of our service for shut-ins. The gospel will be preached."

Everyday communities like Powell's Trinity Bible Church made their voices heard to FCC commissioners, who voted to adopt low power in January. But then the battle moved to Congress, NAB territory.

"That venue is about muscles and dollars." says Cheryl Leanza, deputy director of Media Access Project.

"The NAB got to staffs a lot faster than low-power people did," reports one senator's aide. "Our office was flooded by broadcasters with telegrams, phone calls, mailings." The NAB also passed out technical studies detailing low power's potential interference.

The FCC's technical analysis found that low-power radio would not cause significant signal interference. The NAB is taking the unusual step of directly challenging this analysis. NAB president Eddie Fritts recently called low power a "boneheaded" initiative. "The FCC has clearly abdicated its responsibility as guardian of the [radio] spectrum," he said.

Broadcasters have maintained a strong public front on the low-power fight, but not everyone in commercial radio thinks the industry has served itself well. "This debate has been framed as the haves vs. the have-nots, and broadcasters can't win that battle," warns Bill O'Shaughnessy, a former NAB board member and former president of the New York Broadcasters Association. "Our sole response has been a technical one, but broadcasters know you can buy just about any study you want."

O'Shaughnessy does oppose low power, but on the basis that the government should not be in the business of selecting which overlooked voices deserve their own stations. "If NAB can kill low power I would not be unhappy, although I would be somewhat uneasy. I think the NAB missed the whole thing. I beseeched them, 'Give [FCC Chairman] Bill Kennard something; don't fight him everywhere.' But the NAB comes roaring out of the firehouse on everything.

"I think that NAB views broadcasting more as an industry, instead of a profession or a calling," O'Shaughnessy says. "We ought to look at ourselves as electronic journalists, as trustees of the public airwaves."

It's safe to say those radio station owners who did consider themselves journalists or trustees have since sold their signals. Since the Telecommunications Act was passed four years ago, the radio business has been swallowed up by nearly $70 billion worth of station consolidation, with the largest player today, Clear Channel Communications, controlling nearly 1,000 stations.

Prior to the act, the national limit was less than 100. Business has never been better either, as radio steams toward its first $20 billion year in ad sales.

Yet as O'Shaughnessy noted, if the showdown were just the NAB haves vs. the low-power have-nots, odds are the NAB would be poised to suffer a humiliating defeat. Instead, the NAB found an invaluable ally in the most unlikely of places: National Public Radio.

By joining forces with the NAB to oppose low-power, NPR, the mighty nonprofit corporation that counts more than 600 member stations nationwide and is heard by 14 million listeners each week, has come to be regarded by low-power followers, both at the grass-roots level and in Washington, as Public Enemy No. 1.

"Public radio has got their piece of the pie and they're not interested in anybody but themselves, and that's regrettable," says House Minority Whip David Bonior, a Democrat from Michigan. He calls low power a "reasonable request" to give those usually barred from the airwaves a voice on the dial.

In a symbolic protest vote earlier this year, Bonior -- a longtime supporter of public broadcasters -- voted against NPR's annual funding. "I was not too enamored with how they have handled" low power, says the congressman.

Sen. Kerrey agrees: "Public radio sent a bad signal and got used by [commercial] broadcasters. The paradox is that the argument public radio makes against low power is the same one commercial broadcasters once used against public radio: engineering interference."

Low-power advocates say that NPR's vocal opposition has been the most costly blow to their cause on Capitol Hill, particularly among Democrats. (The NAB already enjoys warm relations with most Republican members.)

"NPR's participation confuses the issue for many members of Congress," explains the Media Access Project's Leanza. "Those who would normally support low-power FM -- those who support diversity on the airwaves -- believe they're doing the right thing [by opposing low power]. In fact all they're really doing is listening to a trade group protect their interests."

A spokesperson for the usually left-leaning Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., says the senator supports the Grams bill because "he's committed to insuring that NPR has a interference-free voice on the airwaves."

In an interesting twist though, late last week Oregon Public Broadcasting, one of the state's largest public radio groups, broke with NPR and threw its support behind low power. Nonetheless, Wyden's spokesperson says the senator still has concerns about interference.

Says NPR chairman and CEO Kevin Klose: "We haven't been shy about informing members where we stand."

Some critics suggest that as NPR's programming has become more national and less local and corporate sponsors have taken on added importance, its intentions in the low-power debate are less than pure.

"They're trying to earn brownie points with commercial broadcasters: You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours," says Robert McChesney, author of "Rich Media, Poor Democracy." And what would NPR gain from the NAB? The group's 20 lobbyists could be helpful when it comes time to secure public funding from Congress, says McChesney. "It's a purely political calculation. It's perfectly rational, but totally indefensible."

Klose strongly denies any sort of quid pro quo with commercial broadcasters. "We are following our own issues," he says. He notes that "the NAB does not support low power. We do. We've said from the beginning it can be compatible and complementary with public radio." NPR supports only the Grams bill, not the more severe proposal to ban low power outright.

After frosty, on-and-off negotiations with NPR for most of this year, FCC Chairman William Kennard finally lost it last week when NPR rejected the commission's final efforts to address public radio's interference concerns. "It is a sad day when National Public Radio advocates a policy that would deny the public new radio service," Kennard fumed in a public statement.

Patience seems to be running thin on the other side as well. "The FCC killed low power. NPR is not killing it," argues Jon Schwartz, a member of NPR's board of directors and general manager of Wyoming Public Radio. "I want the FCC to do its job, prevent interference with existing stations. It's beyond me why the FCC wasn't more willing to do that." As for low-power supporters, "They are generally misinformed and don't realize it."

Klose complains the FCC's refusal to do field testing on the low-power issue "defies comprehension." He also warns that if Congress does not act on low power, NPR may join NAB in court to prevent the FCC from licensing any new community stations.

NPR's outgoing chairman of the board of directors, Kim Hodges, labels low power as "the most contentious external issue we've had to deal with in my four years. I hope we haven't burned any bridges."

For some, the damage is done. "NPR is the last group of people I really want to be fighting," says Pete Tridish, with the nonprofit Prometheus Radio Project, a low-power advocate group.

"But they've been so atrocious," he says. "You can't look at groups like that and assume they're friendly based on their public persona. That cost us. I think if we campaigned six months ago against NPR they would have changed their minds. But we didn't want to; we didn't want a cat fight between public media groups."

The current standoff revolves around technical questions concerning how much signal interference low power would create for public stations. The FCC in its tests found that new low-power stations on what is called "third channel adjacency" to existing signals would not cause static problems.

(Radio stations broadcast on odd-numbered decimals on the radio dial; each odd decimal point is called a channel. Third-channel adjacency means that a new community station at 92.7 would not interfere with existing stations three channels away, at either 92.1 or 93.3.)

Opponents insist more tests are needed. "Our concern is that long after chairman Kennard is gone, public radio and low power stations will be stuck with an interference issue that could've been resolved ahead of time," says Klose.

The Prometheus Project's Tridish maintains that radio technology is not an arcane pursuit: "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand it. We've understood radio really well for 50 years. There is no technical debate; NPR is creating technical doubt where there is none."

Could the issue of interference be a convenient smoke screen? "I've been in Senate for 12 years and I've never been told, 'Prevent that from being done because it's going to cost me money,'" says Sen. Kerry. "It's always a greater-good argument. It's like what [former Sen.] Dale Bumpers said during the impeachment trial: 'When it's not about sex, it's about sex.' Well, when it's not about money, it's about money."

Coming into this battle, McCain watchers would have been hard-pressed to pick which side the senator held in lower regard, the NAB or the FCC. McCain is still upset that Congress four years ago gave away to broadcasters, instead of auctioning off, $70 billion worth of space on the broadcast spectrum that broadcasters need for digital television.

The NAB has also been steadfastly opposed to the cornerstone of McCain's campaign-finance reform, free commercial ad time for candidates. (According to a recent Paine Webber report, television stations will take in nearly $1 billion in paid political advertising this year, up more than 100 percent from the 1996 election cycle.)

As for the FCC, McCain has been relentless in his attacks on the agency, labeling it slow-moving and out of touch.

Indeed, McCain initially opposed the FCC's low-power initiative; McCain is suspicious of any administrative body in front of Congress. Eventually though, he came to see the issue as the NAB, a special interest, trying to use its influence to keep new voices off the dial.

(It's also possible there's an element of political payback in McCain's change of heart. The NAB's man on the Commerce Committee, New Hamshire's Gregg, was the chairman of Gov. George W. Bush's primary run against McCain in New Hampshire. He wasn't polite about it, either. "Basically, John McCain's tax cut is a tax cut that Al Gore loves," Gregg told "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert.)

By May of this year, McCain, along with Kerry, introduced a compromise bill that would allow the FCC to flip the low-power switch to On, but also give broadcasters the ability to sue over any interference issues. As Commerce Committee chairman, McCain sent a clear message: If low-power was going to be addressed by the Senate, it was his bill or no bill. Suddenly the NAB's bill, which had passed the House with a veto-proof margin, was bottled back up in committee, where it remained all summer and fall.

That left broadcasters with only one option: a rider.

When word spread two weeks ago that Grams and Gregg were angling to find a home for their low-power provision, McCain shot off a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, insisting, "As Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which exercises jurisdiction over these issues, I would strongly object to the inclusion of any such provision."

Just more D.C. posturing? McCain kept at it. In recent weeks McCain has sent two similar letters to Stevens, criticizing other proposed Commerce-related riders. Those two provisions were essentially killed.

Will McCain go 3-for-3 and squash the low-power rider? "I've found that riders this contentious don't usually happen," says one entertainment industry lobbyist not directly involved in the low-power battle. "I'd be surprised if they rolled McCain. That's a serious and dangerous thing for the NAB to try to do. He's become the nation's darling."

On the flip side, McCain's got a lot on his mind. He's overseen two recent sets of high-profile Senate hearings (one on Hollywood violence and the other on Firestone highway fatalities). He's been campaigning relentlessly this fall and has his cancer treatment to worry about as well. The question remains how much time and energy McCain can devote to fighting the relatively minor issue of low power. "All those distractions add up," notes one senator's aide.

For low-power supporters looking for a chance to plug in neighborhood radio stations, the nearly two-year-long low-power authorization process has been a painful education in the ways of Washington. "It's been an astonishing process, and a frustrating one, to watch our political system at work," says Tridish.

For Washington veterans though, low power has followed an all-too-familiar script. "It's part of the process," says Kerry. "Democracy isn't perfect. Sometimes you steal it fair and square. Sometimes they steal it fair and square. The other side on this has been direct. They've fought fair. They just have bigger gloves."

By Eric Boehlert

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

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