Applicants for low-power FM (LPFM) stations range from mundane (Sacramento's Sutter Middle School) to exotic (the Women on Top Awareness Series of Norcross, Ga.), and an equally mismatched bunch is debating their future. What else could draw one-time radio pirates to an NPR Board meeting, get network chief Kevin Klose on a Pacifica talk show, or bring together Republican senators and advocates for the blind?
Since the FCC began accepting applications for the tiny noncommercial stations in January, the agency has received more than 1,200 from groups in 22 states and territories. Meanwhile, NPR, politicians, commercial radio interests and others have pushed bills to delay, weaken or defeat the new service, citing fears that LPFMs could interfere with existing full-power stations.
LPFM's supporters dismiss those concerns, and now find themselves in an odd position: fighting bitterly with a public broadcaster whom they ordinarily respect and often support. They also warn that NPR is hurting its credibility among Capitol Hill lawmakers who back LPFM.
Some activists traveled to the NPR Board meeting Sept. 23 in San Francisco to argue the merits of LPFM and hand out buttons and tote bags announcing an "unpledge drive," urging people to deny their dollars to any public radio station that echoes NPR's stance.
"What's going on here is not a technical issue at all," said Peter Franck, chair of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) Center for Democratic Communications. "[NPR] has narrowed the way they serve people, and they're scared of the competition."
"That is not the reality," Klose said of such accusations. "Public radio's roots are in community-based radio. We have said from the beginning that we believe [public radio and LPFM] can be complementary."
Scuffles on the Hill
The FCC heralds its noncommercial LPFM service as a way for churches, towns and civic groups to reach niche audiences with 10- and 100-watt stations. Counseled by grassroots groups, 1,242 would-be broadcasters have applied for low-power stations, with just 32 of those applications on frequencies in the noncommercial FM band, 88-92 MHz. The FCC will open the third filing window next month.
When the FCC approved LPFM Jan. 20, microradio advocates trumpeted the plan as a victory, but they didn't get everything they wanted. The FCC decided to drop some of the more controversial provisions, such as 1,000-watt LPFMs, that it had considered.
The FCC also required LPFMs to observe second-adjacent protections, but, unlike full-power stations, allowed them to ignore third-adjacent protections.
What does that mean for a full-power FM station that broadcasts at, say, 100.7 MHz? A full-power station at 100.1--three frequencies away--must keep a minimum land distance to avoid interference under long-established FCC rules. But an LPFM at 100.1 does not have to keep a distance.
However, an LPFM at 100.3--two frequencies away--<I>does<I> have to observe distancing rules, a provision that some LPFM backers criticize as too cautious.
Keeping second-adjacent protections denied 100-watt LPFMs to some big cities, including New York, San Diego and Los Angeles.
Broadcasters immediately attacked the already-compromised plan, basing their arguments on studies commissioned by NAB, NPR, CPB and the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association (CEMA), which suggested LPFM would interfere with existing full-power stations. NLG and the Media Access Project (MAP) produced studies that drew opposite conclusions.
NAB spoke up first and loudest after the FCC approved LPFM, but, to some surprise, NPR joined in, and lawmakers drafted legislation to fix LPFM's perceived flaws.
Three bills were in play in Congress as Current went to press last week:
- One introduced by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) would kill LPFM outright.
- Another, backed by Sen. Rod Grams (R-Minn.) and touted as a compromise bill, would let LPFM proceed, but require third-adjacent protections and demand field testing for interference problems. The FCC says such restrictions would reduce the number of possible low-power stations by 75 percent. Grams's bill also gives Congress authority to decide on whether to keep third-adjacent protections after the field tests are in. The House passed a bill similar to Grams's in April, and an aide says Grams's bill has 54 co-sponsors so far.
- Finally, a bill drafted by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) would let LPFM proceed, but lays out rules that make the FCC responsible for handling interference problems. LPFM advocates oppose all legislation, but admit that McCain and Kerrey's bill would cause the least harm.
McCain and Kerrey have also attacked efforts to attach LPFM legislation to the appropriations bills that Congress must pass to keep the government running. In a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, they wrote, "If Congressional oversight is necessary, it is imperative that the oversight occur in the authorizing committee, not as a backdoor measure attached to a year-end spending bill."
NPR: FCC falls short again
NPR and the International Association of Audio Information Services (IAAIS), which represents radio reading services, reiterated their support for the Grams bill after the FCC reconsidered its plan and rebuffed many of NPR's complaints. In March, NPR petitioned the agency to reconsider the LPFM plan, which it called "significantly flawed," and raised objections shared by other pubcasters.
NPR asked the FCC to retain third-adjacent protections between LPFMs and full-power stations that carry radio reading services on their interference-prone FM subcarriers. It also sought stronger protections for translators, and for a way to deny low-power licenses in the face of anticipated interference.
The FCC denied a procedure for such interference, and gave little ground on the matter of translators. But it did grant third-adjacent protections to stations that transmit radio reading services.
However, the FCC bedded that concession in language that makes NPR queasy. "We are continuing to study how to best protect these services while preserving LPFM opportunities for as many applicants as is possible," it said, adding that it will maintain third-adjacent protections "until our studies are completed."
The reconsideration disappointed David Noble, the immediate past president of IAAIS. "[FCC Chairman Bill Kennard] did tell us that they intended to have the third-adjacent protections in place," he said. "We did not understand the temporary nature of that."
"It sort of gives with one hand and takes away with the other," Klose said. "We don't know [the studies'] length, breadth, or particulars. . . . We have no idea what those measures are."
Much to Klose's chagrin, the FCC also upheld the merits of its own interference tests for LPFM, and reaffirmed its commitment to removing third-adjacent protections for all other full-power stations. Klose said more testing would benefit everyone, including low-power broadcasters.
"There are not good protections to allow these services to come up," he says. "If you look out just a year or two, you're going to be in a situation with a tangle of interference issues that have not been resolved. . . . Why not resolve them ahead of time? I don't get it."
The microradio advocate known as Pete triDish, who works with the pro-LPFM Prometheus Radio Project, said the call for field testing is "very politically charged," pointing out that LPFM's grassroots supporters would be unlikely to scrounge up the money for expensive trial runs. "In the real world, field testing could probably be done only by the NAB and maybe NPR as well. Obviously, it's pretty easy to spin a test," he said, suggesting that LPFM's foes would produce results to sink it.
Kennard said he was "surprised and profoundly disappointed" at NPR's response to the FCC's reconsideration, adding, "It is a sad day when National Public Radio advocates a policy that would deny the public new radio service."
NPR: "98-lb. bully?"
Activists already upset with NPR's stance shared Kennard's disappointment. "There has not been a real effort to put their money where their mouths are," said Media Access Project Deputy Director Cheryl Leanza, referring to NPR's claim to support LPFM in principle. "The FCC called NPR's bluff with the reconsideration order, and the FCC gave NPR anything that they could reasonably want."
To coincide with the NPR Board meeting and a simultaneous National Association of Broadcasters conference in San Francisco, MAP put an ad in the West Coast edition of the New York Times, Sept. 22, headlined "National Public Radio . . . 98-lb. bully?" and "We want more public radio. Why doesn't NPR?" The ad accused NPR of raising "spurious technical concerns" and included a form letter that readers could send to Klose.
Other LPFM supporters addressed the board in person, and some engaged Klose in a discussion after the meeting. Amy Goodman, co-host of Pacifica's Democracy Now!, moderated the exchange and put it on her Sept. 25 show.
NPR's perceived clout on Capitol Hill has contributed to its importance as a target for LPFM backers, who also picketed the NAB in San Francisco. "Everybody says that if NPR would back off, Congress would just leave this alone and let the FCC go ahead and see how it works out," said Franck. "But some Democrats are signing onto the bills that would kill LPFM, and they wouldn't have done that if NPR wasn't pushing."
One legislative aide confirmed that some on the Hill believe NPR's stance on LPFM to be disingenuous, and that the perception is tarnishing the network's reputation.
McCain, Kerrey, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and House Minority Whip David Bonior (D-Mich.) are all said to be unhappy with NPR's position.
"I think NPR would have been well-served to get out of this issue a long time ago," said Michael Bracy, executive director of an LPFM lobbying group. "But considering that they're involved with the issue, if they do win, it'll be a real Pyrrhic victory."