Watching Congress move to quash the FCC’s new low power FM (LPFM) radio service has been much like watching a train bear down on an unfortunate damsel tied to the tracks.

You knew it was gonna happen, and you knew it would be a nasty sight, but you couldn’t help watching.

And so it happened. On Thursday, the House of Representatives approved a budget bill to fund the Federal Commerce, Justice and State Departments (by an eight vote margin). The U.S. Senate shortly followed suit.

In addition to doling out money to the three government agencies, the bill also contains completely unrelated items, like those restricting the Justice Department from pursuing lawsuits against the tobacco industry and significantly altering immigration laws.

This bill also contains “rider legislation” that will significantly reduce the FCC’s new low power FM radio program.

The whole saga has been a long manipulation of the political process that has cost America’s broadcast industry millions of dollars. If this budget bill is signed into law, only a fraction of the new voices that could have taken to the airwaves will actually be able to do so.

Even more damning, this act of Congress would also only grant licenses on a temporary basis – subject to further review and possible revocation by early next year, following the elections.

There was little debate on LPFM’s death when the budget bill came to the floor for a vote. Hardly anyone spoke out in favor of the rider, and only one person made specific mention of this special interest provision.

The Posturing Begins

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain was the only one to speak out in defense of LPFM:

“The addition of this rider illustrates once again how the special interests of a few are allowed to dominate the voices of the many…The special interest force opposed to low power FM, most notably the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio, have mounted a vigorous, behind-the-scenes campaign against this service.

“Congress should not permit the appropriations process to circumvent the normal legislative process…Instead, we allowed special interests to hide their competitive fears behind the smokescreen of hypothetical interference to severely wound – if not kill – this service in the dead of night.

“I stand before these community-based organizations, these religious organizations, these people throughout these small communities all over America, and say: I apologize. I apologize to you for this action behind closed doors; that we’re gonna deprive you of of a voice of a very small FM radio station.

“I say to the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio: Shame on you.”

This is not a done deal just yet. Shortly after the Senate cast its vote, president Clinton wrote a letter to Congress, threatening a veto of the bill, in part, because of its provision to kill low power radio.

White House spokesman Jake Siewert summarized it as an attempt to “undermine our effort to encourage community based low power radio, something that a lot of Christian groups have spoken out in favor of. But, strangely enough, Republicans seem to want to undermine that.”

Do or Die

Even the NAB isn’t ready to declare victory just yet. Its Congressional point-man, Jim May, sent out an alert to commercial radio interests nationwide late Friday telling his members to “redouble our efforts in both the House and Senate to ensure that our language remains in the legislation.”

“There will be ongoing negotiations between the White House and Congress to resolve differences,” said May, “and LPFM could be placed in play.”

Clinton’s veto threat is not real action. Even though LPFM remains in limbo, it’s now a proven fact that the radio industry has bought off or misinformed a majority of our elected representatives, convincing them to keep the public off their own airwaves.

During the final round of budget negotiations between Congress and the White House, the LPFM rider will likely become a bargaining chip for both sides, either of whom could trade it for concessions on more politically-important items.

If you still think, after all of this despicable behavior, that LPFM is still worth saving (and you can still stomach communicating with politicians), sending a quick message to your Congressfolk with your thoughts on the issue definitely won’t hurt – and may actually help a lot.

Let us not forget that regardless of the future of legal low power radio, there’ll always be room – and a need – for those who choose to work out of bounds.

By taking the system head on, free radio stations also affect change – and with the way things are shaping up in Washington, they’re still proving to be the more effective option.