Various news outlets - some radio-related and others mainstream - say the Federal Communications Commission will move toward a vote to make low power FM radio a reality this week. Many advocates who've worked long and hard to see this happen are shouting victory.
On the surface, it's a heady development - but a closer look at the details shows it's really not much different from the status quo. There is no cause for celebration; we've tried to work with the system, and - mark my words - it will let us down.
Whatever happens this week, it will be one big lie.
The proposal the FCC will be voting on used to be a very sweeping document; it would've created three classes of LPFM stations, with power levels set at 10, 100 and 1000 watts. It would've allowed both commercial and non-commercial LPFM, and - most importantly - relaxed the ancient and overbearing interference protection standards between stations.
However, this is not the same proposal that will be voted on. While details are sketchy on the final draft of the low power radio plan, what is known is depressing and infuriating.
Any low power stations that will be allowed will have maximum power levels of 100 watts. New LPFM stations will not be allowed to air commercials to raise funds. And the relaxation of interference standards has been gutted, preserving much more protection to existing stations than they need or deserve.
While the wattage limit goes down easy, and the non-commercial restriction isn't too bad, it's the interference decision that will kill this proposal's ability to bring any significant changes or alternatives to the airwaves for the majority of the American populace.
If the rumors play out, most places in the United States will, on paper, still have no space on the dial for an LPFM station - even though there are numerous (illegal) stations on the air in many of those places right now, already proving the original concept works.
And that, my friends, is the bottom line. We have fought long and hard for a small slice of the FM spectrum pie. But what we'll end up with is crumbs; a token acknowledgement that a problem in American radio exists, but no remedy by any stretch of the imagination.
There is a chance that the Commission could defer action on LPFM until its February meeting, but even if that happens the outcome won't change. For all intents and purposes, we're back to square one.
Don't forget, either, that there's still enemies out there to low power radio that want to see no changes at all.
The NAB has already publicly declared it will fight any approved low power radio plan; spokesman Dennis Wharton told one publication, "We'll be in a race to the courthouse to challenge the legality." The group is also pushing legislation in Congress to kill low power radio for good.
This leaves the majority with no alternative but electronic civil disobedience. It's the one side of this whole debate that nobody's talked much about, but it's the same one that's forced the FCC to go this far.
It looks like Stephen Dunifer's been right all along. He's refused to participate in any legalization effort, criticizing those that did for asking for only a handout when they deserved more. The handout is apparently on the way now, and after all this effort, it's not going to be worth it. The dreams have been dashed - and Dunifer says,
"Our real strength has always been the threat of an ungovernable situation on the airwaves - lets make that threat a damn credible reality by putting hundreds and thousands of free radio stations on the air."
Amen, brothers and sisters. The system has failed us. Now let's make it pay.