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News Archive: March 2009

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3/29/09 - Walk For Power On The Road [link to this story]

Charles Clemons, Jr., proprietor of Touch 106.1 FM in Boston, has begun his six-month stroll. Taking a page from Granny D, he's walking from Boston to Los Angeles to raise awareness about the serious racial imbalance in media ownership that exists in the United States, and to advocate for an expansion of low-power FM (LPFM) stations nationwide. The twist in this story is that Touch FM is unlicensed, and has already been fined some $17,000 by the FCC.

However, this is no run-of-the-mill "pirate" station; Clemons himself is deeply religious, and the station's main mission is to serve as a positive outlet of expression for Boston's African-American community. So much so, in fact, that Boston mayor Thomas Menino saw Clemons off on his walk when it began last week, and has instructed city staff to keep tabs on his progress. The Walk for Power web site has daily updates of the walking schedule; Clemons and his compatriots are taking photos along the journey; and you can even track the walk's progress via GPS. Cities and towns Clemons will be walking through/past are listed as well; if he's coming close to your area, I'm sure he'd love to see you.

Though the walk's purpose is two-fold, the chances of Touch FM becoming legal are slim, though not impossible. According to current LPFM rules, anyone who's been caught running an unlicensed radio station is barred for life from holding an LPFM station license. There is a possibility that the FCC may do away with this unjust restriction, especially if the Local Community Radio Act is passed through Congress this year (the House version of the bill now has 38 cosponsors; a Senate version is now also circulating and has 5 cosponsors; I am pleased to note that both my local Representative and one of my state's Senators are already on board).

In a nutshell, the LCRA would repeal wholesale the "Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act" passed in 2001, which included the anti-pirate provision. The problem is, the constitutionality of this provision has already been challenged in court - a challenge that failed. Therefore, if the FCC is given the go-ahead to expand LPFM, and the statutory rules for an expansion do not contain the anti-pirate provision, there is a chance that the FCC may re-extend the olive branch to bring more electronic civil disobedients into the fold. Then again, because such de facto discrimination has been tested and approved by the courts, it will really be up to FCC staff - and, ultimately, the Commission itself - to decide whether or not to let unlicensed broadcasters become legit.

Given that we don't know the full makeup of the FCC yet (the one Commissioner who has publicly endorsed unlicensed broadcasting is moving on to a new job), and the fact that several technical steps need to be taken before the FCC would be able to open a filing window for new LPFM stations, it's difficult to discern whether or not the anti-pirate provision might fall by the wayside. If the National Association of Broadcasters has any say in the matter, it will press to keep "reformed pirates" out of LPFM; it's already engaged in a somewhat frivolous lawsuit trying to stop the FCC from slightly expanding LPFM on its own. Who knows what the trade association will try if the LCRA becomes law.

While it would be nice if the LCRA was amended to include an amnesty provision for unlicensed broadcasters, this would most likely make the legislation politically unviable. So it will be up to the FCC to define the real parameters of any expanded LPFM service; here's hoping that they see the sense in letting those most interested in the service (by dint of jumping the gun) get a chance at legality. Otherwise, people like Charles Clemons and many others will continue to do what they do, and with good reason.

If you happen to live along the Walk for Power route, you can drop Clemons a line directly (see the Walk for Power site) to help with food and lodging. For the rest of us, Walk for Power has posted a wish list of items they need to make the journey: "What is needed now more than anything are prayers and donations." I'm not that much of a spiritual person, so I've already made my material contribution. You should, too. And LPFM and pirate radio activists/supporters alike should take a gander at the walk-route and make an effort to help Clemons along the way - there hasn't ever really been an opportunity for those on both sides of legality to help a good cause the furthers all microradio stations, not to mention the larger issue of social justice in our media environment.

3/7/09 - Harvey Smokes In Heaven; Limbaugh Already Self-Combusting [link to this story]

Looking through the site logs, there is an uncommonly common search phrase that ranks relatively high: "paul harvey bong." Well, now that the venerable storyteller has passed on, variants have spiked: "paul harvey on pot"; "paul harvey tokin"; etc.

Here's what you're looking for (3:38, 1.7 MB). The proper credit here. though, goes not to Mr. Harvey, who just provided the fodder. The actual artist is unknown; care to step forward now? You're famous! By the way, there exist two Paul Harvey collage/mashups, which is just part of the larger Celebrity Speech gallery you can find here.

Since Rush Limbaugh has also been in the news lately (unfortunately, not for dying), you might want to check out his remixes.

3/2/09 - More LPFM in 2009? Keep Hope Alive [link to this story]

And the operative word here is, indeed, "hope." The Local Community Radio Act has been reintroduced in Congress. Honestly, I've lost track of the number of times that a bill to undo the 2001 legislative evisceration of the FCC's Low-Power FM radio service has been put forward; this year it's come out of the starting gate with more momentum than ever - something like two dozen sponsors in the House (there is no companion bill yet in the Senate).

Media reform groups are putting out the call for the citizen-calvary to flood lawmakers with correspondence asking for quick action on this legislation. While it never hurts to raise the profile of this languishing yet important issue, a reality check is called for as well.

The main point of the LCRA is to remove the overly-strict channel-separation rules applied to LPFM stations. This last-minute change to the FCC's rules by Congressional fiat in 2001 lowered the number of potential LPFM stations in the United States from several thousand to just under 1K, and almost none of them are located within major metropolitan areas (i.e., where the majority of U.S. citizens and radio-listeners live).

However, removing this restriction doesn't do much to free up spectrum-space for LPFM: it looks good on paper, but back in 2003 religious broadcasters flooded the FCC with several thousand applications for FM translator stations. This "Great Translator Invasion" effectively put paper-deeds on many open frequencies which, if the LCRA was passed, would still be "reserved" for an expansion of godcasting networks. Until the FCC sorts out the "Great Translator Invasion" - which it has fully yet to do - there will be no bounty of spectrum for new LPFM stations, even if Congress were to give the go-ahead for an "expansion" of LPFM.

Secondly, there is a substantial, discriminatory disparity within the FCC's regulations regarding the status of translator stations - which broadcast with up to 250 watts and cannot originate local programming - and LPFM stations, which are capped at 100 watts and are required to be "live and local," at least for one-third of the day. Even though translators are more powerful than LPFM stations and yet provide less local service than an LPFM station ever might (except for those LPFM stations that are being run as de-facto translators already), translators are considered a more important service in the eyes of the FCC than are LPFM stations.

Until LPFM stations are granted the same regulatory parity and protection from interference as translator stations are, effectively shed of their status as "second-class citizens" on the FM dial to instruments like translator stations, LPFM advocates are still scooting for crumbs.

These, you will note, are primarily technical issues - which are much better resolved at the level of the FCC than in Congress (after all, it was Congress who mucked up LPFM in the first place). First, Congress must give the FCC permission to re-expand LPFM out to its original service parameters as first outlined in 1999; then, the FCC needs to re-write some of its rules regarding the primacy and priority of services provided on the FM band; then, the FCC needs to clean up the Great Translator Invasion mess so that a viable, meaningful LPFM window can be opened.

You may also note that only one of these three steps involves Congress, and the LCRA is but step one in a long process of bringing LPFM up to its useful potential.

Which brings us back to the question: will we see more LPFM in 2009? Even if Congress were to somehow magically act expeditiously on this issue (as if there aren't more pressing issues on the plate - the economy, climate change, the "war on terror," etc.), the rubber meets the road at the FCC. And it's anyone's guess just who will constitute the FCC at this stage: we have a solid idea of the anointed Chairman, but there's still at least two (if not three) open seats yet to be decided. The latest buzz is all the new Commissioners may be nominated and confirmed as a "package," and if so, that may take some time. LPFM is not at the top of the FCC's own policy-radar right now (think DTV transition, net neutrality, broadband proliferation, etc.) And there's still that pesky (yet powerful) broadcast lobby to worry about.

If I were a betting man, I would not put money down on seeing a bona-fide expansion of LPFM in 2009. Perhaps, if we're lucky, all the twists and turns of this (mostly) technical tale can be un-kinked by next year. But reform in this particular vein is a slow and incremental process, which is why we must repeatedly go through the process of expressing political will, because each time, a bit more ground gets gained. This may pain some who prefer more radical action (which is still a viable option), but such is how the game is played in Washington.

I feel for my friend Pete Tridish; he's working-full time in D.C. right now as the titular point on the LCRA advocacy effort. He's the kind of man who'd rather hang several hundred feet in the air by a sling hanging antennas than spending long time in a tie. But if he's willing to make that sacrifice, then the hope for an LPFM expansion must be real.