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Future of low-power FM in jeopardy

Future of low-power FM in jeopardy

On the verge of government approval just a few months ago, low-power community radio is once again fighting for its future, and its life. In January, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a proposal of rule-making that would license a limited number of microradio broadcasters. The proposal could pave the way for thousands of new low-wattage stations (up to 100 watts) across the country, giving church and community groups relatively inexpensive access to the public airwaves.

That triumph has been short-lived, however. On Apr. 13, by a more than 2-to-1 margin, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass H.R. 3439, a bill that would effectively neuter the FCC proposal. Every Tennessee representative, including Rep. Bart Gordon, voted for the issue, with the exception of Rep. Bob Clement, who was absent—which was odd, since he cosponsored the bill.

While the bill doesn’t explicitly abolish low-power radio, it would make permanent the protections that require three channels on the dial between each station—thus drastically reducing the number of new microstations that could be created. The bill also protects the dominance of established broadcasters by giving Congress approval of any changes to the bill.

The bill is expected to go before the Senate early this month (as S. 2068). If it passes, it will hurt chances for non-pirate low-power community radio in Nashville. It will also once again prove the lobbying power of well-funded communications special interests. These include the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents everyone from small-market broadcasters to industry giants. According to the watchdog group Common Cause, the NAB spent $2.3 million lobbying Congress, the White House, and the FCC in the first half of 1996 alone, when crucial telecommunications legislation was in the pipeline.

To be fair, an NAB member recently told me that the organization believes it is looking out for consumers by protecting them from cluttered airwaves. (Both sides have produced engineers to back their claims.) The point may be moot anyway. It doesn’t look good for the low-power cause that the NAB’s political-action committee has given $30,000 in the past three years to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which helps reelect incumbent senators. Plus NAB President Edward Fritts was a college roommate of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

But if you want to give low-power community radio a fighting chance, call U.S. Sen. Bill Frist’s office and let him know you care. So what if he’s gotten $9,000 in NAB PAC money over the past three years? Call his local office at 352-9411. And read some of the voluminous material on the issue. There’s an incendiary pro-LPFM column in the current issue of The Nation by Alexander Cockburn (”Low-Power Radio: Mayday! Mayday!,“ May 8), and you can check out the FCC proposal on the commission’s low-power Web page, http://www.fcc.gov/mmb/ prd/lpfm.

And by all means, get the NAB’s take on the issue at its own Web site, http://www.nab.org.

Admittedly, we’re partisans on this issue. Low-power radio strikes us as an alternative to the homogenized corporate crud clogging the public airwaves. But no one’s calling for the abolition of giant radio stations. Let the 100,000-watt muthas have their zoo crews and consultant-driven playlists; just let the rest of us have an oasis of cool music, talk, and public-interest programming as well, if only for a few blocks.

And if for some reason S. 2068 passes, there’s still one provision that intrigues us. H.R. 3439 calls for an independent third party to conduct tests of low-power FM without the third-adjacent-channel protections in nine markets, presumably to see whether there’s actually any interference. How about making Nashville one of those nine markets? It sounds like the kind of interference Music City radio listeners could use.

Elliptical dispatches: So how on earth did the two coolest shows Nashville’s been awaiting—the first-ever local appearances of Sleater-Kinney (at The End) and Stereolab (at 328 Performance Hall)—end up on the same date, May 30? Our advice to the respective promoters: Stagger the start times for the shows so that local music fans can catch both....

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