LPFM on Capitol Hill

There’s lots of telecommunications-related legislation in the works this year, including a potential rewrite of the entire Telecommunications Act; a move to force broadcast television to make the break from analog to digital; and a bevy of bills that could fundamentally shift the way cable systems and phone companies are regulated and interact at the local level with the communities they serve. That’s why low power radio advocates think the timing is right to push for an expansion of LPFM via Congress: the stakes are so much higher on so many other issues that a chance exists to squeak through something positive.
In February, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) introduced a bill to expand LPFM back out to the parameters the FCC had originally defined for the service in 2000. Before the end of the month a similar bill will be introduced in the House of Representatives, sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY). The bill was to drop on June 9th but lacked demonstrable Republican support. Without such backing any LPFM legislation in the House is all but DOA.
Thus the heat is on to convince at least one GOP lawmaker to co-sponsor the bill. Several candidate Representatives are being courted, most notably by LPFM stations and aspirants in the South and Midwest. Lobbying from religious groups involved in LPFM is especially valuable, as they are most likely to bend a candidate’s ear.
The House version of the Local Community Radio Act of 2005 may also include language to address two problems facing LPFM stations both present and future: translator proliferation and encroachment their coverage areas by full-power stations that modify their operations. In either situation, as the rules are currently written, the LPFM station loses (by having to either suffer increased interference or leave the air completely). The bill would also mandate future LPFM application windows of opportunity, on a regular basis. Because these provisions aren’t in the Senate version, there’s always the chance they might be later stripped for compatibility’s sake.
There’s an element of gambling involved in going the legislative route. There’s nothing stopping the GOP majority from simply blocking action on this, in the same manner with which they’ve kept McCain’s bill in parliamentary stasis since February. It is true that LPFM’s foes are preoccupied with larger issues, but those larger issues present ample opportunity for the attachment of poison riders and/or other procedural chicanery. D.C.’s a different place than it was five years ago; back then there wasn’t a media reform movement worthy of the name, either. This could be an important test of the movement’s muscle.