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Feature: Counting Your Chickens

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3/6/98

We've all heard that old adage, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." While it's an overused cliché, it's very applicable to the free radio community right now.

The buzz in the movement is all about the two proposals for an LPFM service filed with the FCC over the past couple of weeks. It's important to remain realistic. While the FCC has received both Petitions for Rulemaking and is currently accepting comments on them, we shouldn't lose sight of some simple facts:

Free Radio remains illegal. Check this scenario: the FCC receives a complaint about a "pirate" in the area. Through their voluminous investigative means, they're able to track down the "pirate." After taking field measurements, the goons get permission to move in. As they drive up to the station, they can hear the signal strong and clear. The lead goon knocks on the door, and the station op opens it. As they muscle in, the op can be heard crying, "Wait! The rules are changing! What I'm doing won't be illegal for long!"

Petitions for Rulemaking are a good start, but from a legal standpoint they're not worth the paper they're printed on. Until the FCC actually takes action on the petitions and the rules get changed, free radio will remain an illegal activity, subject to all the penalties and hardship if you're caught.  Remember, it was less than six months ago that Doug Brewer was held at gunpoint for half the day and his house ransacked for running a "pirate" station, and Lonnie Kobres has, within the past month, been convicted on criminal charges for running an unlicensed station and still faces up to 24 years in prison, Petitions for Rulemaking be damned.

Change will be slow. We're dealing with the United States government here, the largest bureaucracy on the planet. Bureaucracies don't take shortcuts. They like every single detail to be in order before even considering change. The deadline for comment on RM-9208 has already been extended to the end of April - while it allows more people to sound off (hopefully favorably), that's an additional month that free radio will remain an officially frowned-upon activity. Even after the comments are received, the Commission will chew over the proposals ad nauseum, much like a cow chews its cud. There will be discussion after debate after espousal just on the idea of LPFM itself, never mind the actual details of such a project!

While the need for LPFM is a simple one, the requirements to put it into action are complex and time-consuming. The Commission will have to deal with spectrum allocation issues, engineering requirements, licensing issues, equipment necessities...and those are only a few of the larger aspects to flesh out. Like any governmental agency, it moves with the speed of a sloth. For legal LPFM to become a reality before the end of the year would be a miracle.

Where's the NAB? While the FCC has been the big stick, behind the war on "pirates," the National Association of Broadcasters have been the real driving force behind recent crackdowns on free radio. You can bet they're less than enthused about the idea of LPFM stations springing up and drawing away listeners (and revenue). 

They won't be looking the other way as these petitions make their way through the bureaucratic morass. The NAB knows the inner workings of the FCC better than just about anyone, and it will use that knowledge to its advantage. It won't stop at filing its own comments on the LPFM proposals, either; there will be back-room action and plenty of lobbying on all levels against the proposals. I wouldn't be surprised if the NAB begins running a full-scale media campaign in an attempt to sway public opinion in their favor.

Also remember that the NAB also lobbies Congress rather heavily. This is an important point, because the FCC is a part of the executive branch of the federal government, which effectively operates at the pleasure of the legislators. The NAB might not even fight this battle in the FCC's territory - it could possibly get legislation enacted prohibiting legal LPFM from ever seeing the light of day, and the FCC would thereby be rendered powerless.

Don't forget that the NAB is one of the most powerful lobbying forces in Washington - perhaps the most powerful. It's superiority on broadcast issues has never been challenged quite like this. Frankly, I'm a little concerned about the fact that the NAB has stayed silent on the issue this long.

The bottom line? Anyway you slice it, free radio broadcasters are still - legally and otherwise - outlaws. The rules haven't changed yet, and our biggest hurdles are yet to come. Free radio broadcasters still need to practice caution. Legal resources are still at a premium. And while there's hope of change, the consequences of your actions remain the same.