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Feature: A Slow Demise?

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5/1/01

While the Federal Communications Commission continues to slowly move ahead with plans to roll out new low power FM (LPFM) stations, its Chairman is sending mixed messages about the fledgling service's future.

So far, 25 LPFM applicants have received construction permits for their stations. These permits allow the applicants to build their actual facilities and prepare for broadcasting, but they still require an official license from the FCC before they can flip the switch on regular programming.

The FCC will also complete its first round of application-processing in June, when it accepts LPFM station proposals from the 20 remaining U.S. states and territories who haven't had a chance to file yet.

Once the first round of applications are complete, the FCC is supposed to open a second round of filing windows for smaller 10-watt station licenses (the first round was for 100-watt licenses only).

So it would seem that at least a handful of low power stations should be on the air sometime this year - but there is still a small chance that licenses won't actually be awarded. If this happens, opportunities for smaller 10-watt LPFM stations could vanish.

The seed of doubt was planted by FCC Chairman Michael Powell himself.  While speaking last week at the annual "Chairman's Breakfast" at the National Association of Broadcasters' multi-industry convention in Las Vegas, Powell made remarks to the effect that "his" FCC is unlikely to launch a full-fledged low power radio program.

It may be a case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing - once a bureaucracy like the FCC has its wheels in motion, it is awfully hard to stop. It's also important to remember that Powell was playing to the broadcast industry, and probably tailored his remarks to fit what his audience wanted to hear.

Still, the idea that a complete killing of LPFM is even being entertained should strike fear in the hearts of those who plan to apply for a low power station - and in those who still support the skeletal remains of the new service.

Backtracking and Roadblocks

Under terms of a rider to the federal budget passed by Congress last year, the FCC was ordered to drastically scale back its plans for the new LPFM service, cutting the number of potential licenses available by some 80 percent.

That was bad enough - but Powell appears to be taking the evisceration of low power radio even one step further.

At the NAB 2001 Chairman's Breakfast, Powell said that he didn't consider the fact that the number of radio station owners in America continues to fall - while the number of licensed stations continues to rise - to be a sign of a lack of diversity on the nation's airwaves.

These comments line up well with Powell's intent to make the FCC a regulatory lapdog to the broadcast industry, as opposed to following its original mandate to serve the nebulous "public interest."

Part of what Congress told the FCC to do was to test the potential for interference between low power and full-power radio stations in nine markets around the country. Powell says this testing should be complete by the middle of next year.

On the legislative front, any hope for a reversal of Congress' evisceration of low power radio last year appears to be bleak at best. While Arizona Senator John McCain has introduced a bill that would re-establish the original parameters of the LPFM service, his clout alone won't guarantee its passage in Congress.

In fact, the effort has already been marked for a quick death in the House of Representatives, if it even gets that far.

Michigan representative Fred Upton is the new chairman of the House subcommittee in charge of all telecommunications-related issues. He wields great power: Upton acts as the gatekeeper on which telecom bills will get consideration by the full House.

And Upton, a Republican, has already publicly declared his intention to defeat any pro-LPFM legislation that comes his way - in a recent article with Radio World magazine, the Congressman brashly quipped, "No bill which would slacken [interference] safeguards is going to get by me."

Not surprisingly, Upton also voted for the anti-LPFM legislation last year.