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Feature: A Chat With Harold

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1/18/00

Today Federal Communications Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth gave a talk to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Public Utility Institute. The event was open to the public, so I went. When's the next chance of a Commissioner showing up in your backyard - especially on the eve of the vote on low power radio?

After his talk was a social reception. As it wound down, I was able to corner Harold and ask about the LPFM proposal and its future. I was up-front about this site and my work, and he was surprisingly cordial and attentive.  It was a good discussion.

But what I learned was disappointing. We've already covered the severe limitations LPFM will be saddled with, and how its potential will be reduced to nearly zero.  But hearing why from the mouth of one of the five Commissioners who will soon make it so was even worse.

The Upcoming Vote

Each Commissioner used to have the right to defer an item on their agenda to the following month; I asked Furchtgott-Roth if such a move would be taken on low power radio at the Thursday meeting. He's criticized the idea from its outset and does not like the speed at which it's getting acted upon. "The FCC is moving way too quickly on the issue," he said. "And we're supposed to vote on a final rule."

Harold frowned and shook his head, and said he probably wouldn't attempt to defer the low power radio proposal. "It's no use," said Harold.  The rules for postponing action on agenda items has changed - instead of each Commissioner having that power, it is now held in the hands of Chairman William Kennard alone.

"Kennard has the authority now to singlehandedly approve or reject other Commissioners' requests to defer," said Furchtgott-Roth. "And even if I tried, it wouldn't happen. Out of five or so times I've tried to delay action on an item, I think maybe one of my requests he approved."

You'd think this would be a good sign; Kennard can force a vote on the proposal. In Furchtgott-Roth's words, "He's got the votes to pass it."  But the Commission's ultimate reasoning for approving LPFM has nothing to do with the public interest.

The most striking thing about our conversation was the number of times Furchtgott-Roth qualified everything with the word "political."  Almost as if the FCC had never considered the public interest aspects of LPFM, and was working on image alone.

In fact, the thousands of individuals who filed comments critical of the radio industry and in support of the proposal hasn't even registered with Harold. This is where the confusion set in - his, not mine.

I wanted to make it clear that while the NAB may spin the LPFM proposal as the brainchild of radio "pirates," that is not the truth. I also wanted to make clear that the majority of "pirates" out there right now aren't out to flaunt the law - they're broadcasting without a license as an act of civil disobedience.

Furchtgott-Roth seemed surprised I even brought that up.  "Politically speaking, the low power radio proposal has nothing to do with pirates," said Furchtgott-Roth.

"How could that be?," I asked him. Could he explain, then, why there's been a massive increase in pirate activity since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996?

"Well, what are these people telling you?," asked Harold. Even though many already said it in their comments, I told him again - it's almost a mantra by now.

"There's a general dissatisfaction among a large segment of the American public with the state of the radio industry," I said.  "The 'hometown radio station' is dying out; consolidation in radio following the passage of the Telecom Act has homogenized programming to the point where everything's 'canned' - syndicated or automated."

Frankly, I told Furchtgott-Roth, people are just sick and tired of the crap on the FM dial, and feel that the vast majority of the stations where they live simply aren't serving the interests of their communities anymore.  "That's why 'pirate' activity is blossoming," I said.

Harold harumphed, and looked utterly puzzled. "That's interesting...You know, all that activity's in Florida, anyway," he remarked.

Boy, was he wrong - and I told him so. "You'd be surprised at how many pirate stations there are all over this country now, and their motivations are to force change," I said.

It appears Furchtgott-Roth had no idea. He actually looked shocked for a moment.  Then he repeated, "Politically, the pirates aren't driving this proposal."

So what is?

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