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Feature: Parting Ways

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5/15/01

There is much news to report as the introduction of America's new low power FM (LPFM) service continues. While progress is good, it's apparent now that the service - and its new constituents - are working to separate themselves from the movement of electronic civil disobedience which spurred its creation.

The FCC has been quietly issuing new LPFM station construction permits in small batches; the current count is now up to 41, and it's expected that handfuls will continue to be released throughout the year.

The lack of fanfare from the FCC, who could certainly use a bit of publicity on an issue like this to at least maintain its rhetorical populism, is a bit disturbing.

Under new Republican FCC leadership, there is a reluctance to go forward with the LPFM service. hairman Michael Powell has made no bones about his uncomfortableness with LPFM and he's gone out of his way to assure incumbent broadcasters that the impact on their operations by these new flea-powered stations will be minimal at best.

Under the dubious leadership of former Chairman William Kennard, the agency (and Kennard personally) conducted extensive outreach in hopes of furthering public interest in the new service.

Maybe the new hope (at least at the Commissioner level) is that these new stations will go on the air, unnoticed by the communities they'll try to serve, and after a short run of broadcasting, they'll simply fold from a lack of dedicated support.

This is the hope of commercial and public broadcasters, who've publicly stated as much throughout the entire process of the LPFM rulemaking. 

What is even more troublesome now is that proponents of LFPM have all but abandoned their roots, making a clean break from the "pirate" radio movement which kicked in the door they're now strolling through.

Revising History

As it currently stands, any pretense of linking the ongoing 'pirate' radio movement in the United States with the fledgling LPFM service is gone. 

Constituiencies who are better organized and funded now rule the roost. Most notable is the United Church of Christ, who, under its sub-organization, the Microradio Implementation Project, has provided a strong backbone to LPFM proponents now working within the system.

The UCC has used its umbrella of connections and its nationwide presence to put an acceptable face on the push for media access, attempting to co-opt the general movement for radio reform while trying to bury those undesirable lawbreakers who put the ball in motion. 

This has culminated with the recent production of a 15-minute PR-style video entitled "LPFM: The People's Voice." 

The video features commentary from the politically-acceptable proponents of low power radio, snippets from favored politicians, and extensive footage with former FCC Chairman William Kennard.

"LPFM: The People's Voice" does contain one interesting sop to unlicensed microbroadcasters.  This comes in the form of an interesting soundbite from Kennard, who, in a moment of unexpected candor, admits that "so-called pirates" DID spur the FCC into acting on the LPFM issue. Of course, the fact that these same people have been cut out of the game is not mentioned.

While the positive spin the video provides is laudable, it is a bit sickening to watch, as it portrays a disingenuous revision of the history behind the LPFM issue. There was not just a spontaneous grassroots groundswell of support for access to the airwaves. LPFM owes its very life to the risks and punishment assumed by unsung heroes who stepped outside the law to force what little change we've won.

From the message of "The People's Voice," you'd think the pirate radio movement has all but disappeared, making way for LPFM. Like it or not, unlicensed broadcasters continue to sprout up in that majority of America where LPFM stations won't be allowed.

Maybe this is happening because playing the LPFM game is potentially financially lucrative, while "pirate" radio is not. Several organizations who used to be active in assisting and defending the electronic civil disobedience of unlicensed microbroadcasting have collectively reaped windfalls of grant money for acquiescing to playing within the rules, totalling more than $150,000 between them so far.

Then there is the continuing debate over media access and radio taking place in Congress. Just today, a forum was held by the Congressional Progressive Caucus on the issue of public access to media.

Spurred by Congressman Major Owens (D-NY), who was censored during a spring appearance on Pacifica Radio station WBAI in New York, Owens used the forum to delve deeper into the corporate-establishment takeover of the progressive radio network and included some time to discuss the emasculated LPFM proposal.

Notably absent from the discussion, though, were any representatives of the microradio movement, who weren't even invited to speak their piece. This is doubly ironic as many of those involved in the Pacifica fight are also ardent supporters of "pirate" broadcasting.

Even more telling, the supposedly non-partisan cable channel C-SPAN, who now has three separate networks dedicated to covering such happenings in Washington, declined to televise the forum. Two of C-SPAN's three networks were already spoken for (covering the House and Senate floor sessions), and the third chose to carry Congressional news conferences on health care and gun control legislation instead.

It would seem that the fight for access to the airwaves hasn't progressed very far at all. Special constituencies hoard the small gains that have been made, trumpeting them as sweeping victories for the American public. At least in the world of radio, the status quo is still an unfortunate reality for the majority of the country.

That leaves the confrontational approach - unlicensed broadcasting - as the only option left for most. While it might be the longest and most difficult route to real change, it is one we know that works.