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Low-Power Radio:

Mayday! Mayday!

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Trust the broadcasting industry to recoil in horror at the prospect of more choice 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 (NAB), the House of Representatives voted 274 to 110 to scuttle one of the few creditable rulings issued in recent years by the Federal Communications Commission. If the Senate concurs, Congress will have issued a stark No to free speech and democratic communications, just as ruthlessly as any dictator sending troops into a broadcasting station.

The broadcasting lobby has been on a rampage ever since the FCC voted on January 20 to authorize license applications for noncommercial FM stations to begin low-power broadcasting to their communities. Such stations, with a range of up to ten miles, would be able to get on the air for as little as $1,000.

The FCC’s January ruling came as a welcome surprise amid the pell-mell concentration of station ownership prompted by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The FCC acted partly to show it’s not an industry serf, partly to head off the possibility of court rulings endorsing low-watt radio on free-speech grounds. The very same day as the House vote, April 13, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit gave a friendly hearing to low-watt pioneer Steve Dunifer, who has been battling the FCC in court for many years.

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 is broadcasting on, say, 91.1 another broadcaster couldn’t grab 91.3, 91.5 or 91.7. The next available frequency would be 91.9. This effectively meant that the only FM frequencies available to new low-power stations were in virtually uninhabited regions of the country, mostly desert.

Technology has 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 FM signals. But finally the FCC flinched in the face of fierce NAB pressure, and its January 20 ruling called for a separation requirement of two, meaning that there would 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. Even as the FCC ruling prompted hundreds of excited nonprofit groups to ready their license applications, 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 legal, church and community groups came to hearings and demonstrated the fraudulence of the NAB’s claims.

But by now lawmakers were being pressed by an NAB ally, formerly furtive but now brazen in its stance: National Public Radio. Kevin Klose, president of NPR, stated flatly in a recent Radio World broadcast that “the American public would not be well served by an FCC ruling that creates LPFM [low-power FM] at the expense of the existing public radio services.” Klose has good reason to be afraid. 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 threat to the NPR empire.

There’s another, more sinister factor in NPR’s opposition. Both Klose and the boss of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Robert Coonrod, come from careers in US government propaganda abroad. Klose ran Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, long a stamping ground for the CIA. Coonrod oversaw the Voice of America and both Radio and TV Mart?. As Peter Franck of the National Lawyers Guild’s Committee on Democratic Communications puts it, “Klose and Coonrod come out of the national security state. Their instinct is to see federally funded public radio as an actual or potential propaganda arm of government, and they’re terrified of independent voices.” Indeed, Coonrod has been intimately involved in efforts to curb the independence of stations in the noncommercial Pacifica network, which is now the object of an admirable strike by Pacifica Network News reporters.

The awful April 13 House vote came as the consequence of a deal between Republican Michael Oxley and Democrat John Dingell, whereby the FCC will be forced to revert to the old three-frequency separation requirement, which would mean no more than 70 low-watt stations nationwide, all of them in the boonies. The FCC’s two-frequency separation requirement of January would have allowed for about 1,000 low-watt stations. The bill piously calls for new studies by the FCC but is emphatic that the commission can never change separation requirements without congressional authority.

The battle is far from over. Even though the broadcasting industry has great clout, the low-power radio movement has popular sentiment on its side, having fought for ten years with ultimate success to prompt the FCC to that January ruling. The Senate will vote on the issue in early May, and it’s vital that legislators hear from CounterPunchers, communities, churches and labor as soon as possible. Yes, this means YOU. The White House favors the FCC’s January decision. The Senate version of the bill will come before John McCain’s commerce committee, so write to him and inquire whether he really is a reformer. Also write to your senators and their home district staff. Among other organizations to contact:

National Lawyers Guild’s Committee on Democratic Communications at
(415) 522-9814;

Prometheus Radio Project at (215) 476-2385;

Low Power Radio Coalition at (202) 783-5588

Virginia Center for the Public Press
Radio Free Richmond Project

http://members.aol.com/wrfr