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Feature: Dueling Editorials, Round Two

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4/2/00

It's been about a year since the National Association of Broadcasters released its "Anti-LPFM lobbying kit" for its members to use as ammunition in a lobbying assault to overturn the FCC's proposed low power radio service.

What a difference a year makes. The FCC has since approved a conservative LPFM plan, but the NAB is going full-out with a push on Capitol Hill to try and kill it. So far, the votes in support are racking up, and there's a better-than-even chance the broadcast industry will succeed in its mission.

As part of last year's "lobbying kit," the NAB provided a "sample editorial" for its member stations to use in their local newspapers. It was a cheap attempt at furthering its propaganda; as an antidote, I prepared a pro-LPFM sample editorial directly based on the NAB's original text.

One year later, the NAB is back with another "sample editorial" - this one says nothing much different from the first (LPFM stations will create massive interference, radio is not becoming homogenized, consolidation is good).  It's impossible to let this sneak by and end up in some local paper, taken by readers as an original thought from a broadcaster purporting to serve their community.

Again it's time to use their words to our advantage. Feel free to copy and print out the pro-LPFM version of the NAB's editorial and send it in to your local newspaper. In a perfect world the paper would print both versions in the same edition so you could see the deception (and antidote) in action.

Original Spin

LOW-POWER RADIO: AN IDEA WHOSE TIME HAS NOT YET COME

"When everyone speaks, no one can hear." That adage is as old as mankind, yet the Federal Communications Commission is risking the ability of all Americans to access quality FM radio by trying to cram new stations onto the dial without regard for increased interference or where the new stations will be placed.

The Commission is doing so by trying to give out low-power FM licenses to hundreds or thousands of people in the hopes of countering a perceived lack of "diversity" on the airwaves. Unfortunately, the proposal (which the FCC recently approved) will only cause increased interference for listeners and will not provide the licenses where the supposed need is the greatest.

FCC Chairman William Kennard and some of his colleagues believe that the recent consolidation within the radio industry has homogenized the radio dial and left people out of the programming equation. Yet in fact, an FCC study done two years ago and subsequent research indicates there are more radio formats now than there were before consolidation began. As it turns out, stronger radio companies are more able to offer cutting edge programming - such as children's radio - than when they were limited in their ability to program multiple stations in a market.

Moreover, while the "need" for these stations to reach underserved audiences (women, minorities, churches, etc.) is mostly in the urban areas, few if any licenses can be squeezed into major cities. Instead, they will be in medium and smaller markets where there are already full-power licenses available, and where in small markets they threaten the ability of operators there to continue the service those communities depend upon during times of local emergency.

However, the major concern for all listeners is that this low-power FM plan will cause increased interference - not just for existing stations but also for the low-power stations themselves. You see, in order to fit these new stations onto the dial, the Commission had to doctor its traditional protections against interference from adjacent channels. That means that current FM stations will have pockets of interference around the low-power stations' towers in their listening area. It also means that the low-power stations will suffer greater interference from the full-power stations, which begs the question of why they should be licensed at all. The loser in all this is the FM listener.

At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, the FCC's chief engineer acknowledged that the new service would cause interference, but said the benefit of the new LPFM service would outweigh the cost. Yet lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle said they had more questions than answers and pressed the FCC to do more testing before proceeding. In fact, the FCC conducted no field tests and did not even consider a pilot project to judge the impact of the new service on radio signals before moving forward. Contrast that decision with digital television, where ten years of engineering preceded a final FCC decision to move forward.

Providing for diverse ownership is a high priority for the nation's broadcasters. That's why they've begun putting together a $1 billion capitalization fund to help minorities and others buy real radio stations that can reach real audiences. That is the right approach to take - not licensing low-power FM stations that will either drown out full-power stations or be drowned out by them.

Reversing the Spin

LOW POWER RADIO: TIME TO TAKE BACK YOUR AIRWAVES

"When everyone speaks, no one can hear."  It is something the National Association of Broadcasters, National Public Radio, and their member stations would like you to believe, especially when it comes to the Federal Communication Commission's new low power FM radio proposal.

The radio industry is currently engaged in a massive lobbying effort in Washington to quash the addition of more voices on your radio dial, but the entire effort is based on one lie after another.  Let's look at them.

There's been a serious lack of diversity on the airwaves since the radio industry began a consolidation phase some three years ago.  The industry, though, has studies showing the number of formats have actually increased since consolidation began.  Broadcasters say this means there's more diversity on the airwaves, not less.

What radio conglomerates have really done is divided up their own pie into smaller slices.  Granted, 'formats' have increased - instead of 'Top 40' being the outlet for rock music, there's now 'Active Rock,' 'Solid Rock,' 'Alternative,' 'Classic Rock,' and the like.

But the playlists of these formats often overlap.  It's not that there's any more new music to on the radio for the listener - the industry's just been able to spread the same pablum around to more stations.

The prohibitive cost barrier (often in the millions of dollars) of establishing a new full-power station has been removed by the drastically lower costs associated with an LPFM operation. This only a partial step toward restoring reasonable public access to the airwaves. Why shun some progress for none at all?

There's also a push by the radio industry to have the public believe that potential LPFM interference will reduce the quality of full-power station signals.  Dire predictions have been made that LPFM stations will prohibit full-power stations from getting critical information out to their listeners in times of local emergency.

Most full-power stations do a horrendous job of informing the public of impending danger as it is now, thanks to computer automation and the subsequent removal of humans from the local studio.  LPFM stations could only help in this area.

The radio industry also points to the fact that the FCC didn't extensively test the impact LPFM interference might have on the FM dial.  It calls the FCC's action a 'rush to judgment,' noting the ten or so years the Commission spent testing digital television before licensing the new service.

But low power FM is not a new technology; the FCC's had more than 50 years to study and examine FM radio.  In fact, the revisions it made to FM interference standards are long overdue, seeing as how radio receiver technology has improved over the last 30 years, while the FCC's interference standards haven't changed.

At a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, the National Association of Broadcasters even presented misleading evidence in the form of audio samples designed to 'illustrate' the interference problem to members of Congress.  Unfortunately, none of these samples were actually made by intentionally getting two FM signals to interfere - NAB engineers simply mixed two audio samples together and claimed that's how FM radio works.

It's not as simple as that, and the NAB knows it.  Unfortunately, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Congress don't know any better, and now that their palms have been greased by hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from the broadcast lobby, they're set to pass a bill to kill LPFM before the first new stations even get on the air.

What's even more tragic is that the whole industry effort opposing LPFM is couched in the rhetoric of 'diversity,' even while rich white men expand their control over the airwaves. The radio industry is spending a billion dollars to set up a 'capitalization fund' to help minorities and others buy 'real' radio stations that can reach 'real' audiences.  But there's strings attached to those gifts: those who front the money will own a stake in each 'new' minority-owned station they 'help' to put on the air, providing those who've been disenfranchised from the public airwaves with the illusion of access.

Is the double-speak clear enough yet?

LPFM will not drown out full-power radio stations, nor will they be drowned out by them.  What they will do is provide more public access to a resource we already supposedly own.  If today's radio industry will not provide the kind of public service our communities want and need, then let's do it ourselves.