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Feature: Low Power Limbo

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2/20/01

We are two months into 2001 and halfway through the first FCC filing windows for new low power FM (LPFM) station licenses. The progress being made is slow and uncertain.

Two of the three filing windows that have opened and closed so far happened while Big Broadcasting was engaged in its overtime lobbying of Congress to kill the LPFM service. When that effort all but succeeded in December 2000, it put all of those LPFM applications filed - more than 1,000 in all - in jeopardy, as the rules governing the service shifted under the feet of the applicants, in some cases immediately disqualifying many of them.

Since LPFM's evisceration, a third filing window has opened and closed - and another 500-plus LPFM applications have been submitted. In all, more than 1,700 applications for LPFM station licenses have been received by the FCC.

Sounds promising, doesn't it? Now comes the cold, hard truth - the vast majority of those who've applied will never get a station. One website that's been doing an excellent job of tracking the LPFM rollout, Christiancommunityfm.com, estimates on its national "LPFM Scorecard" that only about 15% of the current applicants may be eligible for licenses. The actual number of licenses awarded is destined to be much smaller.

Just when those first licenses will be sent out isn't officially known. Astatement made by FCC Mass Media Bureau chief Roy Stewart at a meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters association this month hints that construction permits for the first LPFM stations could be in the mail by the end of February.

However, such a statement doesn't seem logical as the FCC has many hoops to jump through before it can go ahead with the service.

The bill approved by Congress forces the FCC to conduct experimental field tests and economic studies on its LPFM proposal before it can move forward with a full-scale rollout.

That report was supposed to be finished - and submitted to Congress - by February first. The FCC has not done this and there are no signs that it will be done anytime soon.

Also, the FCC has placed the final two filing windows for 100-watt LPFM station licenses on indefinite hold, and there's no word from Washington about when those applicants in the 20 states still waiting for a crack at legal low power radio will get their chance.

A pall of politics continues to hang over the entire low power radio issue, too - and those dynamics have yet to run their course.

Foes Hold the Upper Hand

Let us not forget that people in Washington, D.C. will be making the ultimate decisions on who gets LPFM station licenses and when they'll be issued. By all indications, folks they are still reacting to the transition in power and preparing for a new and improved environment of "business as usual."

Republicans in Congress led the fight against the low power radio service - and with Republicans in firm control of the House and White House, the chances of actually seeing some sort of expansion of LPFM back to its originally proposed scale looks unlikely at best.

In fact, some of LPFM's biggest Congressional foes now hold some of the most influential positions in Congress when it comes to radio policy. Public Enemy Number One, Louisiana congressman Billy Tauzin, is the new Chairman of the House Commerce Committee, which controls the fate of every piece of communications-related legislation to move through the House.

Seeing as how he was paid more than $30,000 by broadcasting interests to help kill low power radio, Tauzin is less than likely to turn on his masters.

In the Senate, Arizona Republican John McCain (who switched sides late in the game last year to become an LPFM supporter) has expressed interest in introducing a new bill that would undo the damage of the special-interest legislation, but the prospects of actually getting something passed into law are just about impossible.

Politics continues to work against low power radio at the Federal Communications Commission itself. Newly-appointed FCC Chairman Michael Powell has been heralded as an excellent choice by both anti-LPFM lawmakers and media industry executives and lobbyists - this is surely not a good sign.

Powell was the only FCC Commissioner last year to split his vote over the LPFM plan; he liked the idea of more diversity but wanted fewer stations and more study before it actually moved forward.

As he made the transition from FCC Commissioner to Chairman this January, Powell named Marsha MacBride as his Chief of Staff. MacBride leaves her position as Vice President of the Walt Disney Company's D.C. Office to join Powell in power.

There are also two seats to fill on the five seat Commission this year. President Bush II will have free reign to stack the FCC with a business-friendly three-member majority (including Powell).

None of this should mean that all hope is lost with the new LPFM plan. At least two organizations that lobbied intensely for the new service are mulling the idea of lawsuits against the new restrictive rules. Once the political and bureaucratic dust settles, there will be some new stations on the air, serving some communities in ways they've been neglected for years.

However, there won't be enough LPFM stations to truly make a difference on a national-consciousness scale. When all is said and done, legal low-power radio as a whole will end up as an insignificant whisper to counter the roar of the American radio industry, and the problems and conflicts we are dealing now will only get worse.