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Feature: Inside the Smoke-Filled Room

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10/18/00

November's elections are just around the corner, and as the hype on the campaign trail intensifies, Congress is still "at work" in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Senate is hammering out the federal budget; it approves it in pieces, as separate spending bills that lay out just how much each federal government agency gets to spend over the next fiscal year.

Unfortunately, budget bills not only get loaded down with "pork" (extraneous money seen as gifts Congressfolk get for their specific states or districts), they're also notorious vehicles for politicians to ram laws through Congress that wouldn't survive the normal approval procedure (like committee meetings, public hearings, etc.).

These "riders" are often last-ditch efforts made to legislate a specific point of view or special interest into law in the waning moments before Congress adjourns - often with the hopes that it'll avoid public scrutiny until it's too late.

For example, a contentious "rider" attempting passage this year is one sponsored by Oklahoma Republican Senator Don Nickles, who wants to tack a law banning physician-assisted suicide onto a budget bill. It's a blatant move by the pro-life movement to try and strike down a state law in Oregon that allows the practice - without providing significant public debate on the issue (and especially from the people in Oregon).

Such is the method the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio are using to try and squash the FCC's new low power radio service.

Will a "Rider" Ride?

A bill introduced this summer titled the "Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act" has been attached to one of the nine remaining budget bills left for the Senate to approve. It would essentially open up a handful of LPFM frequencies in "test markets" around the country, preventing a full national rollout of the LPFM service until the next Congress gets a chance to kill it.

The White House has signaled it may veto such a bill if it were passed on its own.

Democrat Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who began fighting off the efforts to kill LPFM early on in the game, remarked in a recent letter that government action is supposed to happen "by the people, for the people, not by four people."

And Senator John McCain of Arizona, the most influential Republican on Capitol Hill in the telecommunications domain and a dubious supporter of low power radio, has also vowed to fight any anti-LPFM rider attached to a budget bill.

Still, the movement to squash freer speech on the airwaves certainly has momentum.  The "Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act" continues to gather more sponsors - already a majority of the Senate has signed onto the ploy.

Scoring Small Victories

Low power radio advocates in Washington are fighting hard to block the backhanded legislative effort to kill the new LPFM service.  They're doing their own lobbying of Senators and spinning of the media to shed some light on what's going down.

It seems to be working: two weekends ago, Minneapolis-based Americans for Radio Diversity and other allies in LPFM's fight for life ran a full-page advertisement in Minnesota's largest newspaper.  It was a direct attack on Republican Senator Rod Grams, one of the main architects of the Congressional drive to kill low power radio.

Because Senator Grams is involved in a tight race for reelection this year, the NAB, Minnesota Public Radio and other special interests responded a week later with a reply full-page propaganda effort.

The LPFM fight has even garnered passing attention from the players in the presidential campaign. A spokesman for Democratic hopeful Al Gore's said this weekend, "Al Gore supports the FCC's new class of licenses for low power stations" because of their potential to "give voice to the voiceless."

Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader has always been very vocal in his support of LPFM; this weekend he, too, reiterated that support in a strongly-worded issue of his newspaper column, In the Public Interest:

We have forfeited many of the means of mass communication to concentrated corporate interests, consigning ourselves to homogenized low-grade entertainment and lower-grade copy-cat "newstainment" that barely aspires to inform let alone energize our eroding democracy.

Low power FM offers the opportunity to offset commercial radio's inadequacies, decentralize broadcasting and empower neighborhoods and communities.

...But it comes as no surprise that political decisions in Washington are often made on factors other than the merits, and there is now a serious risk that Congress will override the FCC's plan.

Whether a tiny fragment of the public's airwaves will be returned to the public for LPFM depends now on whether the public is ready to assert its interests. Call your senators, and tell them not to interfere with LPFM. A working democracy requires some public control of the means of communication.

In addition, a letter to key Congressmen involved in the budget debate, signed by the heads of a large number of civic, labor and civil rights organizations (including the United Auto Workers, National Organization for Women, NAACP, National Education Association, and the National Congress of American Indians, among many others), was sent out last week warning them not to stifle low power radio through back-door legislation.

There's even some dissent brewing in the ranks of the LPFM opposition. Although National Public Radio continues its crusade against the new service, Oregon Public Radio recently broke ranks and declared its support for the small stations.

When the Smoke Clears

Some LPFM advocates are prudently exploring "what-if" strategies in case the Senate does override the public's will.

One of the most intriguing involves petitioning the FCC for an immediate change to the rules governing preexisting FM translators. Translator stations are technically the same thing as proposed LPFM stations, although they're not allowed to do any original local programming - they just rebroadcast a larger station, improving the big station's coverage area.  Petitioning the FCC to open up translators to local programming would completely sink the NAB and NPR's "technical concerns" argument that has stymied the LPFM service to-date.

Even as the fur flies, it's important to remember that no matter what the fate of legal low power radio, it won't be enough to compensate to the damage already done to the American radio landscape. As long as massive corporate interests are allowed to control nearly all of the radio dial in nearly every community, there will always be dissent against the status quo - and the underlying problems LPFM attempts to address won't be solved.

To fundamentally change the system for the better, it's important to keep perspective as the rhetoric flies hot and heavy. True public access to the airwaves won't come from some LPFM licenses tossed out as crumbs. It'll involve radical revisions to the federal Telecommunications Act, which the broadcast lobby got Congress to re-write in their favor four years ago.

If that were to come to pass, that fight would make this Senate skirmish look like shadow boxing in comparison.