On the decidedly low-tech side, but still a very important part of my work, is helping the Low Power FM community (particularly the good folks at Prometheus Radio Project) deal with the FCC.
One of the things that has kept me busy this month has been a final push to get good stuff out before Powell left. It finally happened at 7:30 p.m. the night he left, with the release of this Order.
This is actually an interesting story that, among other things, pits local community radio organizers aganst some folks in Twin Falls, ID that are either exploiting loopholes in the rules or violating federal law to set up a nation-wide evangelical Christian radio network.
For those just tuning in, low power FM (or, “LPFM”) as its afficionados call it, came out of the pirate radio movement and a progressive minded FCC Chairman named William Kennard. After consolidation got into high gear with the relaxation of ownership rules in 1996, lots of folks fed up with mass-produced cookie-cutter commercial radio. They began setting up their own “pirate” radio stations — so called because they violate federal law, not because they steal music.
William Kennard, as Chairman of the FCC, did his bit to shut these stations down. Until he took a trip to South Africa and had an epiphany. One of his stops was at Bush Radio. Amazed at the power and importance of community radio in helping South Africa transition from Apartheid, Kennard returned with a novel proposal for the pirate community. The FCC would begin a proceeding to open up a new, legal low power radio service that would serve local communities. The FCC would grant amnesty to any pirate broadcaster that ceased violating the law by operating without a license. In exchange, the pirates would agree to work with the FCC and to respect the final rules for the new service.
Pete Tridish, one of the people involved in the pirate radio community, decided it was worth a shot. He stopped unauthorized broadcasting, founded Prometheus Radio Project, and worked to mobilize folks itching for community radio all over the country. Working with former Media Access Project Deputy Director Cheryl Leanza, Pete and the rest of the community radio people managed to win approval of a new service that would create thousands of new low power radio licenses.
Unfortunately, they faced stiff resistance from incumbent broadcasters. Not just the National Association of Broadcasters either. To their eternal shame, National Public Radio pimped for their commercial bretheren and fought tooth and nail to keep a competing non-commercial service from coming on the air.
When NAB and NPR lost at the FCC, they went to Congress. Although LPFM supporters were able to save the service from elimination, Congress cut back the number of available spots from thousands to several hundred — and only in the most “uncrowded” radio markets. Nevertheless, the LPFM service has now grown and serves an important roll, where available, for local communities.
But problems have come up with LPFM. The biggest is the tug of war for spectrum with translators and full power stations. I’ll do full powers first, ’cause it’s easier. Full power FMs are “primary” to low power FMs. That menas that if an LPFM interferes with a full power station’s signal, the LPFM must shrink to avoid the signal or shut down. Every now and then, full power stations apply to expand their power. This means that a very local LPFM will get knocked off the air by a Clear Channel clone a hundred miles away (importing news and music from a thousand miles away). We think protecting real local programming should take precedence over distant signals.
Now translators. For those unfamiliar with FM translators, these are devices that pick up signals from a distant full power station and either route them around terrain (like mountains) or extend the signal into areas a full power signal couldn’t reach. The FCC has said that LPFM stations and translators are “co-equal.” If a translator gets approved for a spot first, you can’t put an LPFM there. If an LPFM gets in first, you can’t put a translator there.
When Congress cut back on the number of available slots for LPFMs, it left open using those slots for translators. In March 2003, the FCC opened a “window” to take applications for new FM translators. They got more than 13,000 applications. four times more applicastions than the total number of translators that existed before the window.
This alarmed the LPFM people. The LPFM people are trying to get the legislation cutting back the number of slots reversed by Congress. Pro-LPFM legislation has been introduced by McCain and Leahy and Cantwell. But if the FCC grants the translator applications, and they have granted about 5,000 of them so far, there will be no space left for LPFMs even if Congress passes the McCain-Leahy-Cantwell bill.
So the LPFM community has been trying to get the FCC to change policy. Our argument is that it is better to give a local community a real local radio station rather than importing some distant signal from hundreds of miles away. The FCC should therefore give LPFM applicants preference over translators.
Then the LPFM people started digging into the applications. It turns out that over 4,000 of these new translators were from two companies in Twin Falls, ID. Digging deeper, the two companies were owned by the same three people, and that these guys used
a third company to sell these free translator licenses for hundreds of thousands of dollars to religious brodcasters, mostly to a group called the Calvary Chapel Church.
Why is Calvary Chapel Church and other religous orgs interested in FM Translators? Because a loophole in the FCC’s rules allows you to send “noncommercial” programming to an FM translators by satellite. So a few evangelical groups figured out that through this free translator application process, you could set up a nation-wide religous network. Sweet! Jesus loves people who manipulate legal loopholes, right?
But the three guys in ID who have been turning a tidy profit on this are not just exploiting a loophole. As I have argued to the FCC, it is against the law to apply for a free federal broadcast license for the sole purpose of selling it. When you apply, you make an implicit promise that you will provide service. That’s why you get it for free.
So a few weeks ago, I filed a petition asking the FCC to investigate all this and impose an immediate freeze on granting any more translator applications. (You can read our press release here.) At the same time, I and other representatives were pressing Powell to issue an Order that would deal with a bunch of other LPFM issues.
It was critical to get this out while Powell was still in charge because Powell was a big supporter of LPFM (as a libertarian, he wants more voices, he just doesn’t care who owns them). Kevin Martin, however, likes religous broadcasters. So we were afraid he would not do anything about the translators.
To Martin’s credit, he agreed to vote the item. I met with him just before he became chair and he made the following clear: (a) he did not necessarily agree with the proposals in the Order; but, (b) he was not going to hold it up by refusing to vote until Powell left (every Commissioner must vote an item for it to pass). Martin is a stickler for fairness and fair processes, even if he disagrees with the substance.
So now the Order is out and the complaint is pending. The Order put a freeze on processing translator applications for 6 months. Hopefully, we will be able to persuade a majority of Commissioners that real local programming should take precedence of those who create a national network through exploiting loopholes.
Stay tuned . . .