[Hpn] Radio Power Play: Broadcasters, NPR Team Up To Kill Low-Power FM

Tom Boland wgcp@earthlink.net
Sat, 22 Apr 2000 23:35:12 -0700 (PDT)


FWD  San Diego Mercury News - Friday, April 21, 2000

Radio Power Play: Broadcasters, NPR Team Up To Kill Low-Power FM

by Alexander Cockburn
       TRUST the broadcasting industry to recoil in horror at the prospect
of more choices for the American people, who -- be it never
       forgotten -- actually own the airwaves this same broadcasting
industry claims as its own.

       In a shameful vote on April 13, just before the Easter recess, and
after furious lobbying by the National Association of Broadcasters,
       the House of Representatives voted 274-110 to scuttle one of the few
creditable rulings issued in recent years by the Federal
       Communications Commission. If the U.S. Senate concurs, Congress will
have issued a brutal ``No'' to free speech and democratic

       The broadcasting lobby has been on a lobbying rampage ever since the
FCC voted on Jan. 20 to authorize low-power,
       non-commercial FM with power anywhere from 1 to 100 watts. The new
stations -- for which license applications have been
       pouring into the FCC -- have been available to non-profits and local
educational associations, which would then be able to start
       broadcasting to their communities for as little as $1,000 in
start-up costs.

       The FCC's January ruling came as somewhat of a surprise, since the
commission has spent most of its time in recent years giving
       the green light to pell-mell concentration in station ownership. The
move came partly as an effort to appease such criticism, and
       partly to head off the possibility of rulings by U.S. courts
endorsing low-watt radio on free speech grounds.

       But even so, the FCC did bow to industry pressure on a technical
question of enormous importance, the issue of ``separation
       requirements.'' Old FCC rules required three separations between one
FM station and another. This meant that if a station was
       broadcasting on, say, 91.1, another broadcaster couldn't grab 91.3
or 91.5 or 91.7. The next available frequency would be 91.9. This
       effectively meant that in the United States, the only FM frequencies
available to new stations were in virtually uninhabited regions
       of the country, mostly desert.

       Technologies have changed greatly since those old rules were made,
and by the new millennium, the FCC was prepared to move to a
       separation requirement of one, regarded by independent
communications engineers as quite sufficient to preserve the integrity of
       existing signals. But finally, the FCC flinched in the face of
fierce NAB pressure, and its Jan. 20 ruling called for a separation
       requirement of two, meaning that there could be no new low-watt
stations operating legally in cities like New York, Los Angeles or
       San Francisco.

       But this still wasn't enough for the broadcasting industry. Hardly
had the FCC ruling prompted hundreds of excited non-profit
       groups to ready applications for licenses before NAB lobbyists began
to deploy across Capitol Hill. To befuddled lawmakers, these
       lobbyists played an utterly fraudulent CD purporting to show the
chaos on the airwaves that would be caused by the new
       two-separation requirement. Engineers from the FCC and from
independent news groups came to hearings and demonstrated the
       fraudulence of the NAB's claims. But by now, lawmakers were being
pressed by a furtive NAB ally, in the form of National Public

       NPR has tried to keep a low profile in this matter, but there's no
doubt of its position. Kevin Klose, CEO of NPR, stated in a
       recent ``Radio World'' broadcast that ``the American public would
not be well-served by an FCC ruling that creates LPFM
       (low-power radio FM) at the expense of the existing public radio
services.'' In fact Klose's fears are well-merited. Ever since NPR
       forced its affiliates to accept nationally syndicated NPR
programming, the proportion of locally originated and community-oriented
       programming on these public radio stations has plummeted, and many
listeners are discontented. Low-power FM is a huge threat to
       the NPR empire.

       There's another, more sinister, factor in NPR's opposition. Both the
boss of NPR, Kevin Klose, and the boss of the Public
       Broadcasting Corporation, Robert Coonrod, come from careers in U.S.
government propaganda abroad. Klose ran Radio Free Europe
       and Radio Liberty. Coonrod oversaw Voice of America and the Office
of Cuba Broadcasting -- both Radio and TV Marti. As Peter
       Franck of the National Lawyers' Guild Committee on Democratic
Communications puts it, ``Klose and Coonrod come out of the
       National Security State. Their instinct is to see public radio as an
actual or potential propaganda arm of government, and they're
       terrified of independent voices.'' And indeed, Coonrod has been
intimately involved in efforts to curb the independence of stations in
       the non-commercial Pacifica Network, such as KPFA in Berkeley. And
now, Klose has been working the Hill alongside lobbyists
       from the NAB.

       The awful April 13 vote in the House came as the consequence of a
deal between Republican Michael Oxley of Ohio and Democrat
       John Dingell of Michigan, whereby the FCC will be forced to revert
to the old frequency separation requirements, which will mean
       no new low-power stations. The FCC will be required to vacate all
new licenses. As a piece of bric-a-brac to disguise the dirty work
       under way, the bill piously calls for new studies by the FCC.

       The battle is far from over. Even though the broadcasting industry
wields great power, the low-power radio movement has popular
       power on its side, fighting for 10 years with ultimate success to
prompt the FCC to that January vote. The Senate will vote on the
       issue in about three weeks, and there is plenty of time for
legislators to hear from communities, the churches and labor. The White
       House strongly favors the January ruling by the FCC. So should
anyone who cares for informative, locally based radio; more than
       that, for democracy.

                                            2000 Mercury Center.



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