Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Low power to the people

Last Tuesday, The Senate Commerce Committee voted to expand the number of Low Power FM (LPFM) stations around the country, via Senate Bill 1675, a.k.a. the Local Community Radio Act of 2007. The bill was sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA). The legislation would eliminate third channel protection for full-power FM stations, allowing more LPFM stations to exist.

The bill moves on to the full Senate next. A similar bill is currently in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Reps. Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Lee Terry (R-NE), with 55 co-sponsors.

Commenting on the bill, Prometheus Radio Project technical director Pete Tridish said in a statement, "Low Power FM radio was limited back in 2000, when the big broadcasters tried to convince America that 100-watt community radio stations would interfere with the biggest stations in America's biggest cities. At Congress' demand, the FCC proved that there was plenty of room for low power FM radio. With today's vote, and with the growing momentum to expand low power FM radio in the House of Representatives, communities across the country have a reason to celebrate."

Elsewhere, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin is trying to appease people who want access to the nation's airwaves, albeit in rather peculiar ways. He endorses removal of a rule prohibiting the transfer and reassignment of LPFM licences between licensees. He also would like to see reinstatement of an original LPFM rule that required all permit holders to live in the local community, an ownership limit of one station per licensee and requirements of a physical staff presence at the station during all operation hours. At the same time, though, Martin, a Bush appointee, is trying to relax media ownership rules at the local level, which would allow major corporations like Clear Channel, CBS, Citadel and others to gobble up even more stations. The New York Times claims that Martin is secretly trying to sneak it through by Christmas, trying to repeat the same mistakes the FCC made four years ago. Won't they ever learn? Thankfully, measures to stop this insanity are gaining bipartisan support in Congress. And protests by groups such as Code Pink, who had one member dress up as a French maid for yesterday's Halloween FCC meeting, are bringing attention to this. Activists for consumer, political and minority and ethnic groups have also been rather outspoken on the issue.

But back to this LPFM thing. First off, what is it? Low-power FM broadcasting is an initiative that allows for community-based broadcasters to start up their own stations. These stations would range in power from a meager 1 watt all the way up to 250 watts. Quite a big difference compared to the big-budget commercial and noncommercial stations blasting out anywhere between 10,000 to 100,000 watts, but at least it's a step in the right direction. In theory, these LPFM stations would be run by locally-based groups such as schools, churches, independent owners with money to burn and a reason to broadcast, and other organizations.

LPFM had its start back in the 1970s, when the FCC started granting Class D licenses for nonprofit entities and community broadcasters. The National Association of Broadcasters, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and even National Public Radio helped convince the FCC to cease this practice, citing interference concerns. The FCC was finally able to revive LPFM a few years ago This time, there would be restrictions on these stations. They would be restricted in power, were required to be noncommercial and nonprofit, locally-owned, and required to produce the majority of their own programming. They held a one-time application process for available frequencies in 2003. Currently, over 800 LPFM radio stations dot the landscape, but the effort was again curtailed by big broadcasters. Congress bowed, and a freeze on new applications was enacted.

All this bickering proved to be distracting, as the main beneficiaries of these licenses and translators have been big religious organizations such as Calvary Chapel, Educational Media Foundation, Family Radio, Radio Assist Ministries/Edgewater Broadcasting, shell subsidiaries of these groups and others. These religious organizations made a mad dash to apply for as many licenses as they could. Radio Assist Ministries alone applied for over 2400 of them. In short, the churn out FCC applications like Nigeria cranks out spam. Many of the rules designed to preserve the purity of LPFM's mission went straight out the window as small religious translators, propped up by rather unscrupulous people, began to pop up like dandelions, dotting the landscape and piping in canned programming from Idaho, California and other places (see map at right).

The shuffling of translator licenses became big business in itself. Radio Assist Ministries/Edgewater Broadcasting, headed by a former Calvary employee, has raked in over $800,000 just in the trafficking of these licenses. While LPFM was forced to wait, these groups cut in line and slapped up a translator that took a potential LPFM frequency anyway. With all this crap cluttering up the airwaves and making community broadcasting look bad, does the LPFM initiative really stand a chance? Tough to get your foot in the door when the most probably open low power frequencies are cluttered up with K-Love and Air1 repeaters.

How the hell could this happen anyway? Well, the FCC decided in 1990 to allow noncommercial broadcasters to feed programming via satellite to various FM translators. Oops!

So, how can LPFM be done right? And how can we open up more possibilities for community organizations to get involved? Well, I've got some suggestions:

1. Priority for these licenses should be locally-based groups such as high schools and colleges, well-organized concerns or local churches. No out-of-towners can own these signals. Calvary Chapel and all their little sock puppets can go pound sand.

2. To expand on the religious translator deal (can you tell this is a major pet peeve of mine?), Calvary, EMF and the rest will have a choice to make. The FCC should convert many of these translators (which by law cannot generate their own programming) into legitimate LPFM stations, and require them to either staff each and every translator with a local presence, like a true LPFM station abiding by their rules is required to do, or divest of each and every one of them, selling them to local groups for no more than the face value of the license, the cost of equipment, and perhaps a paltry sum for lawyers, bookkeepers, leases, engineers and their trouble. One current FCC proposal is to allow small daytime-only commercial AM stations to have low power FM translators. There's a sale possibility there. They could also sell their licenses back to the FCC for face value. Seems fair to me. After all, one Clear Channel is more than enough.

3. Translators are effective in many cases. They are used by commercial and noncommercial stations to fill in gaps within their primary signal contours (hindered due to terrain). They are also used to relay the signals of regional public broadcasters (i.e. statewide public radio networks) and, to be fair, perhaps even some regional interest religious stations (like KTIS in St. Paul, Minnesota, which is heavily Minnesota-oriented). Obviously, the translator loophole has been abused pretty badly. While a public radio network often carries vital statewide news and programming, to claim that a little station in Twin Falls, Idaho serves the public need is just plain foolish. The FCC needs to take charge of this dilemma once and for all, rather than encourage mini-Clear Channels.

4. Realistically, most LPFM stations will probably have problems with staffing. I know, our college radio station had a real hard time with organizing all those volunteers. With automation systems become widely available and inexpensive (to the point of some being totally free), some unstaffed operation should be allowed. I'd limit to 6-8 hours max per day. This would also allow for airing some noncommercial syndicated programming, such as Democracy Now, Counterspin, and the Praise Jesus, Send Me Money Hour. I think this seems reasonable. A time limit on this type of non-local programming was one of the things initially proposed.

5. Groups can go in with each other to purchase licenses. Granted, this would require a strong partnership between parties, lest this all turn into some sort of legal fiasco. Some stations are doing well with the co-op/time share deal, and it allows smaller groups, local churches, determined disc jockeys, etc. to access the airwaves.

6. Any group, organization, church or individual wishing to purchase a license must show that they are indeed capable of putting it on the air and making it work. Just like commercial broadcasters. Far too many LPFMs never launch, and are turned around and sold to the Cavalrys and other translator pigs of the world. If it falls apart, then a sale should be allowed. But making sure these people can pull it off from the get-go will help to minimize that, and allow LPFM licenses to get to many of the people who know what to do with it.

Aside from all the hassles, LPFM is an idea with some promise. A promise to give at least some of the airwaves back to the people.


Chad Lupkes said...

The format is making the pages impossible to read. Looks like everything is being shoved into the Left side banners.

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