Low-Power Community Radio Stations

There is no greater place for mischief in Washington than budget and appropriations bills which slide through in the closing hours of a Congress.

These mammoth bills, often containing 300, 400 or more pages touching on a multitude of issues, are fertile ground for provisions sought by special interests?provisions that wouldn’t survive the sunshine of open hearings, debates and votes in Committees or on the floor. Senior Members with lots of political clout are especially adept at slipping amendments into these last-hour bills to award corporate interests and generous campaign contributors.

This year provisions in an appropriations bill are being used to clobber an admirable plan by Federal Communications Commission Chairman William Kennard to issue licenses for low-power FM stations that could be used by schools, churches and community organizations. Imagine a community group using low-power radio to share news about local issues and culture and to help rebuild the civic fabric of their neighborhoods. These nonprofit stations won’t even compete with commercial radio stations for advertising dollars.

Why would there be opposition in Congress to efforts to enhance democracy by giving these groups a voice and adding diversity to an increasingly consolidated broadcast spectrum? As the FCC Chairman said this is “not about ideology, it’s about money.” It is also about blatant corporate power which seeks to use elected representatives and the influence of campaign money to stifle competition and provide special protection for an industry.

The lobbying effort against the low-power stations was led by the National Association of Broadcasters. As cover for a raw display of political power, NAB tried to argue that the 10 to 100-watt community tations would “interfere” with the signal of the full power commercial stations. Sadly, National Public Radio (NPR), which knows better and which, itself, was created to increase broadcast diversity, joined the commercial broadcasters in opposition to the community stations.

The argument about “interference” from the low-power stations was refuted by the FCC. The agency’s engineering tests showed that interference, if it existed at all, was minimal. As Chairman Kennard noted, the broadcasting industry in the past has petitioned to allow full power stations to sit close to each other, some with 100,000 watt power. So, why would a 10-watt community station be the big concern that the broadcasters trumpeted to the Congress?

Once again, this episode illustrates just how the lobbying wars on Capitol Hill are stacked against citizen groups. Lined up in support of the community stations were the National Association of Evangelicals, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the National Education Association, the National Council of Churches and community groups. The interest in the establishment of the low-power stations is evident in the 1,200 applications that have been filed by nonprofit organizations
in 20 states.

Yet, none of this counted when the broadcasters reached their Congressional friends. In a report on the success of the broadcasters, the New York Times took special note of the fact that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a leading supporter of the efforts to block the low-power stations, had been a friend of Edward O. Fritts, president and chief executive of NAB, since their college days at the University of Mississippi. Also included in the measure are provisions pushed by Senator Ted Stevens and Representative Billy Tauzin that release National Public Radio from obligations to offer free air time to political candidates.

It is not accidental that issues like these end up in money bills at the end of the Congress. These bills always affect a broad set of issues and “must” items at the end of the session. The final passage is always on a House-Senate conference report that must be voted up or down without amendments. A direct vote on a separate provision such as the low-power stations isn’t possible under the rules of the Congress. For similar reasons, such last-hour omnibus legislative packages are often veto proof.

The wipe out of FCC’s authority to license low-power community stations is an outrage that should be corrected in the next Congress. This bill is on the way to President Clinton. It would be a wonderful f he would veto this bill. If, he doesn’t President-elect George W. Bush, who has told the nation that he is a “compassionate conservative” could signal his concern about community needs by embracing the idea that communities, religious groups, schools and citizen groups should have a voice through these low-power FM stations. This would be an excellent place for the new President to provide evidence of his desire to reach out to the people.

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