NPR and Trent Lott Pull the Plug on Community Radio
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Tue, 19 Dec 100 01:18:24 -0800
Subject: NPR and Trent Lott Pull the Plug on Community Radio
X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649 -=[ Fun_People ]=-
From: New York Times, December 19, 2000
Congress Severely Curtails Plan for Low-Power Radio Stations
By STEPHEN LABATON
WASHINGTON, Dec. 18 - Tucked away in the budget legislation that President
Clinton will soon sign is a provision sought by the nation's largest
broadcasters that sharply curtails the ambitious plans of the Federal
Communications Commission to issue licenses for low-power FM radio stations
to 1,000 or more schools, churches and other small community organizations.
The provision, by setting new technical standards and repealing those
already determined by the F.C.C., makes it all but impossible for licenses
to be issued in cities of even modest size. Officials say that the tough
standards will mean that at most a handful of stations in the least
populated parts of the country may be started, although even that is now
Taking a direct slap at the regulators, the new law shifts the policy-
making authority from the F.C.C. to Congress to set standards and issue
licenses for low-power FM stations. This is the first time in recent memory
that the lawmakers actually stripped the agency of the power to manage an
important part of the spectrum.
The F.C.C.'s low-power radio plan was conceived last January to counter
the huge consolidation in the broadcasting industry that the agency's
chairman, William E. Kennard, concluded had led to a sharp decline in the
diversity of voices on the airwaves. Mr. Kennard saw the plan as a
cornerstone of his agenda to promote civil rights issues at the F.C.C.
Large broadcasters, including National Public Radio, had complained that
the creation of so many low- power stations would have produced interference
with their broadcasts. The F.C.C. countered that the true concern of the
broadcasters was new competition from small stations.
Today Mr. Kennard said the legislation "shows the dangers of politicizing
"This is a resource that everyone has to share," Mr. Kennard said in an
interview. "We can't allow people who have the spectrum to use their
political clout to shut out voices that don't have the same clout. This
highlights the power of incumbency. Companies that have spectrum guard it
jealously, and they can use Congress to prevent new voices from having
access to the airwaves."
Known as the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, the law takes
power away from the F.C.C. - an independent regulatory agency - to issue
important rules for licenses for FM radio stations and gives it to Congress,
where the biggest broadcasters have considerably more influence.
If the agency wants to restore the low-power program to its original size,
the law instructs the regulators to conduct more studies of the effect of
the signals of low-power stations on larger radio stations and then come
back to Congress, which will now be the new rule-making body, to decide
whether to issue more low- power radio station licenses.
The budget measure also contains a provision that effectively releases
National Public Radio from offering free air time to political candidates.
A 1996 law had given the candidates free access, although it was only used
for the first time this year when some candidates noticed it. National
Public Radio executives had feared that more candidates would demand air
time, particularly because radio stations that had denied the air time
could have had their licenses revoked.
But a provision added to the budget legislation by Senator Ted Stevens,
Republican of Alaska, with the support of Representative Billy Tauzin,
Republican of Louisiana, says there is no penalty for any station that
refuses to provide such air time. As a result, National Public Radio
executives now think stations will be able to deny free air time to
candidates without any consequences.
The provisions on political access and low-power radio demonstrate the
emerging influence on Capitol Hill of National Public Radio, once considered
an attractive political target of conservative Republicans but more recently
an institution that held as much sway with the lawmakers as some of the
leading for-profit broadcasters.
In the case of low-power radio, National Public Radio prevailed with the
assistance of the commercial broadcasters. A chief supporter of the
provision to roll back the low- power radio plan was Senator Trent Lott of
Mississippi, the majority leader, who is a friend of Edward O. Fritts, the
president and chief executive of the National Association of Broadcasters,
since their college days at the University of Mississippi.
The F.C.C. has received more than 1,200 applications from organizations in
20 states for low-power radio stations. Officials at the agency said today
that, at best, a tiny fraction of those organizations would now be able to
The White House had supported the F.C.C. plan and had criticized efforts
to scale it back. In recent weeks, administration officials had been
critical of the proposal that was put into the budget package.
But because the legislation is dominated by provisions and compromises that
the president wanted, aides said the low-power radio provision was not
enough to provoke a veto.
The measure will be signed by President Clinton just as the F.C.C. would
have issued its first batch of new licenses to schools and churches.
Instead, F.C.C. officials today suggested wryly that the Congress had
converted the plan into "our new rural program."
The nation's major broadcasters, joined by National Public Radio, had
accused the F.C.C. of shoddy technical work and said the original plan
would lead to tremendous amounts of signal interference that would have
created poor reception for more established radio stations.
"Throughout the F.C.C.'s rule- making process to create a new low- power
FM service, we have cited L.P. FM's potential interference to the services
of full-power stations, including vital radio reading services for the
blind," said a joint statement by Kevin Klose, president of National Public
Radio, and Ben Martin, president of the International Association of Audio
Information Services. "This is the practical, rational way to achieve the
laudable goal of compatibility between existing public radio stations and
the new, low- power service."
Mr. Fritts of the National Association of Broadcasters said his organization
was "pleased that Congress has protected radio listeners against additional
interference that would have been caused by the F.C.C. low- power FM radio
But Mr. Kennard and his supporters at civil rights and community groups
countered that the broadcasters had thrown up a phony complaint. They said
that their engineering tests determined conclusively that any signal
interference would be minimal at most and could be dealt with through
administrative proceedings and that the interference argument was intended
to mask the larger broadcasters' real concerns about growing competition
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
© 2000 Peter Langston