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Published on Friday, April 21, 2000 in the San Diego Mercury News
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 communications.

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 Radio.

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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