Ten years ago, the FCC did a startling thing. It recognized that much of the rise in “pirate radio” came from frustrated demand for small, local licenses of the sort the FCC had simply stopped distributing many years before. So the FCC offered a deal to the “pirate” community: stop transmitting illegally and the FCC would create a low-power radio service. Despite fierce resistance by commercial broadcasters at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) (and, to their eternal shame, National Public Radio, which can be just as much of a bad incumbent as its commercial sisters), the FCC adopted rules to allow 100-watt radio stations to operate on a non-commercial basis. These stations would operate on a “secondary” basis to full power stations, required to protect these stations from any interference. To create space for these new community Low Power FM (LPFM) stations, the FCC would relax the “third adjacent” spacing requirement, a mechanical rule for spacing radio station transmitters far enough apart adopted in the early days radio to ensure no interference. The FCC studied the matter and concluded that relaxing this rule would not cause harmful interference to existing full-power stations.
Needless to say, the full-power broadcasters did not give up so easily. But neither did the supporters of LPFM. It’s a story worth celebrating not merely for the result, but for what it teaches us about staying in the struggle for the long-haul.
After the FCC defied expectations and the full-power broadcasters by authorizing LPFM, both NAB and NPR went to Congress to ask Congress to shut off the LPFM service before it could ever launch. A coalition of would-be licensees — churches, civil rights groups, local citizens groups who wanted the chance to have their own radio station, represented by my old employer Media Access Project — fought back. In the end, LPFM supporters managed to save a scaled back version of LPFM. Full power broadcasters persuaded their allies in Congress to attach a bill to the 2001 Omnibus Budget legislation that forbade the FCC from relaxing the “third adjacent rule,” limiting LPFM to the most rural, least crowded radio markets. Instead of thousands of LPFM stations, supporters competed for a few hundred.
But LPFM supporters did not give up. Out of this struggle emerged the Prometheus Radio Project. For ten years, Prometheus Radio has served as an organizer and promoter of LPFM and has been the center of a massive citizen push to restore the original Low Power Radio rules and permit the hundreds of local communities denied their chance at a local radio license to realize the dream of getting their community voice on the air. Assisted by dozens of organizations (which I shall not try to name, since I will certainly forget someone important and accidentally insult them), Prometheus has fought over the last ten years for passage of the Community Radio Act to make LPFM more broadly available to communities throughout the United States.
At long last, on last Saturday Night, as Congress prepared to wind down its “lame duck” session, Prometheus Radio and their supporters succeeded in getting the Community Radio Act passed. It took ten years of hard, smart fighting. It took endless numbers of heartbreaking disappointments, false trails, compromise discussions with this or that set stakeholders. Finally, after overcoming these hurdles and getting a bill through the House, the Community Radio Act remained stalled in the Senate. Every time Prometheus ferreted out a “hold,” the NAB would find another Senator to put a hold on the legislation and keep it from coming to a vote. But still Prometheus didn’t give up. They ramped up the pressure, and not only among progressives and Democrats. Conservative religious organizations equally eager to get their voice on the air joined Libertarians disgusted with protectionist special interest politics to pound on Republicans until the NAB’s supporter’s in Congress finally told the NAB to settle the mater with Prometheus for good. A few last minute face-saving tweaks later, and a reformulated bill sailed through both the House and Senate.
It’s a rare Hollywood finish. “The people” triumphant over the “special interests” with Republicans and Democrats joining together in the end to vote for something that will translate into real quality of life improvements for the folks living in communities now eligible for LPFM licenses. And it is also a story of true grit and never giving up, even in the face of impossible odds. No one would have bet on a rag-tag band of reformed radio pirates and their public interest law firm pushing LPFM rules through the FCC against the combined lobbying power of the NAB and NPR. No one would have bet on them saving even a rural LPFM service in Congress. And certainly no one would have imagined anyone could ever get the bad legislation reversed. But ten years later, here we are. Yes, it sucked as badly as the cynics say that special interests were able to cripple LPFM in the first place. But if LPFM supporters had given up after that, we wouldn’t be on the verge of seeing thousands of new communities get a chance for a local, non-commercial radio station. Instead of giving up after the first defeat, or the second, or n+1, Prometheus and their allies stuck it out — and ultimately won ten years later.
It’s worth keeping this in mind however the network neutrality vote comes out tomorrow. As I recently observed, network neutrality has had an utterly unbelievably bizarre history. As I sit here, typing this, it remains unclear whether the FCC will even hold a vote tomorrow on the proposed network neutrality item, let alone make the improvements needed for an adequate level of protection. We may be looking at no network neutrality rule for the foreseeable future, or one so riddled with loopholes, exemptions, and distinctions between wireless and wireline as to be worse than no rule. After nearly 5 years of fighting, it’s more than a little frustrating.
But for anyone who thinks we can just walk away if we lose the vote tomorrow, consider the history of LPFM. Prometheus could have walked away in 2000 with a rural LPFM service for several hundred communities. They could have walked away in 2004, 2006, and 2008, when the Community Radio Act failed to pass. They could have walked away anytime this year when yet another secret hold in the Senate seemed to doom their chances once again. But they didn’t. They stuck it out until they won. Sometimes, in order to get to the finish line, you need to buckle down for the long haul.
Stay tuned . . . .
(From someone whose college couldn’t get a low power FM license. We had to settle for ‘carrier current AM’…)