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Feature: The LPFM Backlash

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8/7/01

As of August 2001, slightly more than 100 new low power FM (LPFM) construction permits have been issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). At least two stations are reportedly on the air for "program testing" purposes, awaiting receipt of their actual licenses to go to full-time on air status.

It's been more than a year and a half since the FCC announced the creation of the LPFM service and many would say that coming so far so soon is excellent performance for a federal bureaucracy.

But some of the applicants that had hoped for an LPFM license have given up on the process. They cite third-party harassment and a diminished willingness by the FCC to work with them. Since Republican Chairman Michael Powell took control of the agency earlier this year, there's been a definite chill on the pace of LPFM's rollout.

One of those who decided not to wait for the wheels to grind further is Roy Clark. Clark and partner Joe Williams had hoped to bring legal low-power radio station to Warrenton, Virginia, a town of 6,700 people located an hour's drive south of Washington, D.C.

The LPFM application window for Virginia opened and closed nearly a year ago. Clark and Williams filed for an LPFM license in Warrenton under the name Clark Communications.

This did not sit well with the owners of WMZQ-FM, otherwise known as "Today's Best Country" - a 50,000 watt commercial station located 40 miles away in Washington. WMZQ is owned by none other than America's largest broadcast conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications.

Clear Channel - through WMZQ - filed a Petition to Deny Clark and Williams' LPFM application. Warrenton's proposed LPFM station would be on 98.1; WMZQ is located at 98.7. The 50,000-watt blowtorch was worried about interference from the proposed 100-watt LPFM station.

Congress' meddlement with the LPFM plan at the end of 2000 had already effectively killed Clark and Williams' application by prohibiting new LPFM stations from locating on any frequency within three clicks on the dial from an existing station.

But Clear Channel's "salt in the wound" - by going on record against an LPFM application that was already dead - was the last straw for Roy Clark. On February 24, 2001, Clark got hold of a 15 watt transmitter, hoisted an antenna, and put Free Radio Warrenton on the air anyway.

It did not take long for WMZQ to complain to the FCC about the appearance of Free Radio Warrenton, especially after Roy Clark began programming the station with classic country music and got a positive response from listeners in the community.

Sometime earlier this year, Clark says he got a phone call from someone with the FCC telling him his LPFM license application had been denied. He's yet to receive official notice of his application's dismissal, though, and filed an amendment to it in June changing the proposed frequency from 98.1 to 95.9. Free Radio Warrenton had been broadcasting on 98.1.

All seemed to be running smoothly as word-of-mouth traveled around the town and more people tuned in. That is, until Saturday, July 21, when an unidentified FCC agent showed up at the station. Clark let the man inspect his equipment and the agent ordered the station to shut down.

Clark originally complied with the order, but since then he's had the station on the air sporadically and is making plans for a full-time return to the airwaves.

According to a news release on the station's Web site, "We feel that the recent action by the federal government is unjust, invalid, and a violation to our constitutional rights to the public airwaves."

"We had filed an application for (a) low power FM radio station license, but a big corporate media giant filed a petition to deny us...We find this argument and petition bogus." 

In e-mail correspondence with Clark, he says he's taken further steps to counter the FCC harassment. Filing a lawsuit against the agency is definitely an option, and he's talking it over with an attorney.

In addition, Clark says the FCC isn't welcome at Free Radio Warrenton anymore: "The FCC has been served with notice not to return here for any purpose, if they do they will be prosicuted [sic] to the max allowed by law," he wrote.

Going the pirate route may have effectively killed his chances at ever getting an LPFM license, although Clark says he doesn't really care. "If I get the license for the LPFM I'll be happy, if not I continue what I'm doing now. I'm not worried about any fine."

This was bound to happen as many aspiring LPFM applicants face the reality of being denied a license. Some will choose not to take the news passively.

Microradio stations who choose from the outset not to play by the rules are one thing; stations who tried the legal route and were denied are something else. It is very likely we'll be seeing many more Free Radio Warrentons cropping up in the future.