Media Politics: Study Suggests NAB and NPR Lied to Congress

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by Jonathan Lawson

In Seattle, there's no FM station on the dial between the University of Washington���s KUOW (94.9) and Clear Channel's KJR (95.9), because of the FCC's rules about how widely stations need to be separated in order to avoid signal interference. The intermediate frequency of 95.3 is off-limits because it's just two frequencies away ("third-adjacent") from each of the other two.

Three years ago, the FCC revised its antiquated adjacency rules, which were drawn up in the days before quartz tuning and other technical improvements, in order to allow greater use of available FM space. Their idea was to allow much of this space to be allocated for noncommercial community radio. But the decision was quickly reversed by Congress, under pressure from entrenched industry interests who argued that the FCC didn���t know what it was talking about, and that the new rules would cause interference between stations.

The continuing struggle over FM spectrum usage and community radio took a new turn this month, as the FCC released a long-awaited study on the viability of low-power FM (LPFM) stations transmitting in the narrow interstices between larger broadcasters. In short, the study appears to confirm what many microbroadcasters and radio engineers have known all along, and what the FCC had ruled in 2000���that many more stations could coexist on the FM band than are currently allowed. At the same time, the study offers a powerful refutation of claims made at that time by the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio.

Here's what happened. The FCC's decision to create a new LPFM class of broadcast licenses in 2000 was a triumph for microradio activists, who had spent years lobbying to legalize low power community radio. The decision's backers hoped that the new stations would do something to alleviate the damage to broadcast diversity produced by the 1996 Telecom Act and the flood of mergers which it had unleashed.

The NAB had lobbied hard for the Act, which deregulated radio ownership for corporate owners. The industry lobbyists were none too excited about the LPFM decision, however, which in effect deregulated public use of the airwaves as well. They hated the idea of thousands of community groups airing local, commercial-free programming in cities and town across the country. The NAB launched a high-dollar campaign to convince Congress to overrule the FCC. One infamous element of their effort was a laughably amateurish, studio-produced CD claiming to show that the new low-power stations would render their commercial neighbors virtually unlistenable. The ploy might have been laughed out of Washington, but for a powerful ally joining the NAB's cause.

One might have expected community-supported National Public Radio to stand up for LPFM, or simply to refrain from express an opinion, as they normally would. Instead, NPR demonstrated their level of commitment to noncommercial community broadcasting by siding with the NAB. Throwing the weight of their safely liberal reputation behind the extravagantly funded NAB disinformation machine, NPR sealed the campaign���s success. The result was the Preservation of Radio Act of 2000, which restored the ban on second-adjacent broadcasting, virtually banning LPFM from most of the country's population centers.

The law also directed the FCC to commission an experimental study of second-adjacent low power broadcasting and its potential for interference, and it���s that study which was finally released this summer. The study concluded, with piles of data, that interference is minimal, and that the ban on second-adjacent programming should be lifted. The study is so unambiguous in its findings that it strongly suggests that the NAB/NPR's results presented three years earlier - discredited by the new report - were either wildly incompetent or intended to deceive Congress.

What will all this mean for the future of community radio? National microradio activists, led by Philadelphia's Prometheus Radio Project, are likely to lobby Congress to raise the issue again, taking advantage of the current buzz around media policy reform. It's too early to tell whether such a campaign would be successful in this Congress.

Additionally, LPFM doesn���t have the support at the FCC that it enjoyed four years ago. While the Commission has been going through the motions of approving station applications (including a few dozen in Washington State), they���ve also begun kicking LPFM broadcasters off the air. A rural South Carolina LPFM station was ordered off the air by the FCC when a commercial station, broadcasting on a nearby frequency, successfully applied to move its transmitter a few miles down the road. The owner of the LPFM station called the act an "atrocity" and called for support from other LPFM activists.

Whether or not a Congressional lobbying campaign succeeds in what might be termed a "re-deregulation" of community radio, we're already beginning to see LPFM success stories in the Northwest. Spokane's Thin Air Radio (thinairradio.org) already has studios and a transmitter tower; this October they'll hold a community "barnraising" and begin broadcasting at 95.3 FM. Next will be KXPB in Pacific Beach, probably to be followed by more stations on the radio-starved Pacific coast, and successful LPFM applicants in Port Townsend, Van Zandt, Kettle Falls, Olympia and elsewhere around the state.

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