Senate Committee Approves Low Power FM

The Senate Commerce Committee added its approval this morning to the Local Community Radio Act, passing the bill on a unanimous voice vote. The measure, introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell, would allow thousands of new Low Power FM radio stations to launch across the country. With the House companion bill also moving forward definitively, community radio advocates are highly optimistic about success this year.

The bill would create space on the airwaves for more small, noncommercial radio stations to begin broadcasting, by relaxing the rules defining how far apart stations must be separated on the dial. In previous years, the expansion of Low Power FM radio has been opposed by existing commercial broadcasters, represented by the National Association of Bradcasters, and sometimes by National Public Radio, citing interference concerns that have since been debunked. This year, NPR is supporting the bill, and so far at least, the NAB has not come out swinging against it.

In Washington State, both Senator Cantwell and Congressman Jay Inslee have provided significant leadership in moving this bill forward. Reflecting on the importance of today's committee vote, Senator Cantwell said that expanding low-power radio would help improving emergency response systems and broaden the diversity of media ownership. Other Northwest congressional backers of the bill include Republicans Cathy McMorris Rodgers (WA-3) and Greg Walden (OR-2), Congress' only former broadcaster.

Prometheus Radio Project released the following statement:

Local Community Radio Act: One Step Closer to the Finish Line

This morning, the Local Community Radio Act (S592) passed unanimously out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation with a voice vote. Both the Senate and House versions of the bill are on their way to full floor votes.

By repealing restrictions placed on the FCC in 2000, the Local Community Radio Act would allow hundreds of new licenses for low power FM stations.

Gary Galloway, Communications Leader for a county emergency response task force in Newton County, Mississippi spent the week in DC telling lawmakers his story about the life-saving role of low power radio during a crisis. After hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged Louisiana and coastal Mississippi, Galloway worked with the Hancock County Emergency Management Team in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi to reach out to the public. Broadcasting nightly on low power station WQRZ, Galloway was able to provide essential information about road closures and where people could go to get food, water, and medical care.

“My team has been deployed to tornado outbreaks, hurricanes, plane crashes, pipeline explosions, and other disasters that exceed the capability of local government. My experiences have taught me that low power FM is a crucial tool for Emergency Management to communicate with citizens when lives and property are in jeopardy,” said Galloway.

Galloway met with the offices of Senator Cochran (R-MS), a former cosponsor of the legislation, Senator Wicker (R-MS), and Senator Vitter (R-LA), who voted in support of the legislation this morning.

Because low power radio stations broadcast at less than 100 watts, they can run from generators during power outages—sometimes even operating on a car battery. Non-commercial, locally based, and volunteer-run low power radio stations respond to community needs in ways that larger stations cannot.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman, Campaign Director for the Prometheus Radio Project said that disasters are not the only time when the public lacks access to local news.

“Low power radio is not only essential in times of an environmental crisis, but is also essential in addressing the crisis in our media system,” said Fischer-Hoffman. “There are few alternatives for genuinely local programming, and people want news and information relevant to their own neighborhoods and towns.”

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee, also noted the potential of low power radio in changing the face of media ownership.

“[Low power FM] is good way for women and minorities to gain experience in broadcasting that may not otherwise be possible given the expense of operating a full power station,” said Senator Hutchinson.

The Local Community Radio Act is co-sponsored in the Senate by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and John McCain (R-AZ). While this Senate legislation has passed out of committee in the previous two sessions, this year marks the first time that the House version passed through the House Subcommittee and Committee.

Senator Cantwell said that improving emergency response and broadening the diversity of media ownership are key reasons why she supports this legislation.

“I am optimistic that we can effectively cross the finish line on this issue this Congress,” said Senator Cantwell.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey