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11/28/00

Events taking place in Washington over the next month will determine the fate of the low power radio legalization effort in America.

The FCC approved the new LPFM service in January, and began taking applications for new stations this summer. However, when Congress tentatively approved legislation to severely curtail the new rules, the FCC effectively put all LPFM work on hold, and has temporarily suspended the next application filing window, which was to be opened this week.

The forces fighting for and against low power radio are both gearing up for this final faceoff. The commercial broadcast interests, fueled by deep pockets and close connections on Capitol Hill, are making a final lobbying push to get Congress to kill LPFM through its federal budget approval process.  If that doesn't work, Plan B involves a court challenge to the FCC's new rules.

The Congressional option looks best, according to the National Association of Broadcasters. It successfully got both the House and Senate to approve a "rider" to a federal budget bill that would have allowed only a handful of new LPFM stations on the air, subject to being shut down early next year if lawmakers so choose.

President Clinton has threatened to veto any bill that contains language threatening the FCC's new radio rules. But with the mess created by the presidential election controversy, Congress meets next week in an extraordinary "lame-duck" session to map out next year's federal spending in only a handful of days.

Because the pressure will be on to get the job done, chances are much higher that more horsetrading will take place on riders and other politically-motivated legislative initiatives currently attached to budget bills. The NAB's own lobbyists put it this way:

"Although the veto threat does not state explicitly that the White House views LPFM as a veto worthy issue in its own right, it is possible that the LPFM bill could be placed in play during closed door negotiations."

Broadcasters are flush with cash right now, thanks to the hundreds of millions of dollars of political advertising they've run over the last few months. Chances are very good that some of that money will find its way back into Congressfolks' coffers in exchange for keeping the NAB's anti-LPFM bill attached to the budget language.

Ironically, the Senator who spearheaded the NAB's lobbying drive, Rod Grams (R-MN), was voted out of office this month. He still gets a final vote.

Tell it to the Judge

On the side of the citizenry, a significant chunk of the grassroots support for LPFM has dwindled, first as people read the fine print of the FCC rule, and replaced now by frustration at the "business as usual" taking place in Washington.

If the legislative string-pulling fails, the broadcast industry has also initiated a lawsuit to try and kill the new stations. It filed its case in the D.C. District Federal Court this spring, claiming the FCC rushed to judgment when it approved its new LPFM rules without taking into consideration the harm the new stations might cause existing broadcasters.

Fortunately, it appears the courts have not been kind to commercial broadcasters; without any fanfare, the case was kicked up to the D.C. District Court of Appeals, after the lower court apparently found in favor of the FCC.

Oral arguments in front of the appeals court were held today; the attorney who argued the FCC's case thinks they'll win. The NAB's lawyers had no comment. A decision is expected within three months.

One way or another, we will know very soon whether LPFM will live or die. Ultimately, one thing is certainly clear: corporate media dominates not only the dial, but our decision-makers -  to an alarming degree. A handful of low-watt radio stations will not fix this problem. More substantive - and radical - change must happen before we truly regain a resource we've lost.

Whether the government wants to participate in the change - or be forced into it - is now up to the folks in Washington.