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Big Wattage Clash over Low-Power FM

Seven years ago, in a raw exercise of political muscle, advocates of low-power, community-based FM radio were summarily crushed — after an intense,12-month lobby campaign — by the National Association of Broadcasters.

NAB convinced lawmakers that a Federal Communications Commission decision to allow more of the stations, which operate at 100 watts or less, was technically flawed and would lead to interference with far more powerful broadcasters.

Congress, listening attentively, attached a rider to the 2000 District of Columbia appropriations bill that overruled the FCC decision.

Now, the little guys are back — with several changes in their favor, including bills in both the Senate and the House and an argument that their proposed legislation is the ideal antidote to big-media concentration.

It’s a complicated, technical issue, which is why Congress’ decision to wade into the decision-making process was highly unusual.

Broadcasters, however, are a powerful lot; they are in every Congressional district, they typically are influential figures in their hometowns and their fundraising talent is impressive.

The issue is called “third adjacency,” and it refers to the number of ticks on the FM dial that one station must be located away from another. If there’s an FM 101.1 in town, low-power FM stations want the right to be able to transmit at 101.7, three adjacent ticks up the dial. Broadcasters say that’s too close and could lead to interference with their station, which in turn would encourage listeners to tune in elsewhere.

Advocates for low-power FM radio, which is used primarily by nonprofit community based groups, including churches, say that’s rubbish.

“This is a fight about who has the right to use the public airwaves,” says Cheryl Leanza, the managing director of the United Church of Christ’s office of communications. The church, a mainline Protestant denomination with just more than 1 million members, has been active in communications issues since the 1950s, Leanza says. It is joined by other religious groups that use community-based broadcasting, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Christian Coalition and the National Religious Broadcasters’ association.

Two bills in Congress, one sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the other by Reps. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), hope to overturn the 2000 law and make third adjacent channels for low-power FM radio possible once again.

The 2000 rider put the FCC’s license-granting authority for low-power FM stations on hold, freezing the number at around 800. But it also called for a study by a neutral engineering company to look at the interference problems on the third adjacent channel.

The study, by the nonprofit research institute Mitre, which operates three federally funded research and development centers, came to the same conclusion as the FCC: that interference was not a problem.

“The Mitre report proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was room for low-power FM,” says Hannah Sassaman, the program director at Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio, which lobbies Congress and provides technical support for groups interested in starting a community-based local radio station.

NAB begs to differ.

“People like to paint this as big corporate radio trying to crush the competitor,” says Dennis Wharton, the association’s chief spokesman. “We’ve never opposed the concept of low-power FM. What we oppose is the interference you would have if you gave up those third adjacent channel protections.”

Adds Wharton: “We’ve done studies on what their proposals would do, and we have interference.” Not to car radios, whose superior “selectivity” capability, says Wharton, makes them better able to keep a clean signal.

The problem is with the “Sony Walkmans, the portable devices people carry,” Wharton notes. “For us, it’s all about the interference. They’re noncommercial. Why would we care?”

Responds Leanza: “People are always using technology as an excuse for no new entrants. When we had the AT&T Ma Bell monopoly, they said if you plugged a telephone they didn’t make into the network, it would break.

“They said VCRs would kill the movie industry so we should stop them and regulate them,” she added.

Both Terry and Doyle are on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) is said to be sympathetic, although there already is plenty on his plate and no hearing is set yet for the issue.

A committee aide to Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) says low-power FM is “on the list of things we’re going to address,” without being more specific.

The legislative dynamics are complicated by a crucial broadcaster ally: National Public Radio, whose green and crunchy image provides invaluable political cover.

NPR might take a more nuanced and more conciliatory view of the issue than NAB, but it also is deeply concerned about interference problems. And since lobby battles generally preclude complex opinions for an easily digested message, NPR’s interference concerns place it squarely in the broadcasters’ camp.

“We don’t want to see happen to the FM band what happened in the AM band, with other audio sounds and noise interference,” says NPR lobbyist Mike Rickson.

One possible solution, Rickson says, is to simply make it easier for listeners to complain about interference and require the FCC to respond to those complaints more efficiently. “The interference remediation activities of the commission,” he says dryly, “leave something to be desired.”

Low-power FM advocates do have one important advantage this time around: Their opponents are busy fighting much bigger battles.

“When I talk to the NAB folks, they are opposed and they’re going to stay opposed,” says Terry. “But they’ve got digital transmission, they got multi-carry, they’ve got a lot of issues that rank a little higher. ‘We’re not going to work this on a daily basis,’ they say.”

Broadcasters also want to raise local ownership caps, remain exempt from paying performance royalties and scotch the proposed Sirius-XM Radio merger as well.

The fight over low-power FM mainly is about less populated areas, where the FM dial is not as full, and the country’s major radio owners are not as invested. For example, says Doyle, “In Pittsburgh, there’s an Irish hour on the radio. That’s not competing with Clear Channel.”

And, suggests Doyle, with webcasting and satellite radio proliferating, low-power FM radio at least “keeps people surfing the FM dial.”

Michael Bracy, a partner at Bracy Tucker Brown & Valanzano who lobbies on the issue for the Future of Music Coalition, is optimistic.

“We’ve got 52 co-sponsors in the House, and a bi-partisan bill that is picking up steam,” he says. “We’re taking it step by step.”

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