LPFM: Thanks For The Memories?

Much was made last year of the Local Community Radio Act’s passage in the House of Representatives. But since then, no news: what’s going on?
As you may have heard, most of the telecom-policy wonk-world is all agog with the FCC’s promulgation of a National Broadband Plan. Some have felt, since Chairman Julius Genachowski took the helm of the agency, that he’d be much more focused on “new” media than “old.” This seems to be playing itself out to some degree.
However, to its credit, the FCC’s hands are tied until Congress approves the Local Community Radio Act. This may be a bit more challenging than first thought; one report says a provision has been added to the Senate’s version of the bill which would repeal (see bill version #2) the “Rosa Parks provision” of current LPFM rules – giving unlicensed broadcasters a shot at legitimacy provided they voluntarily cease their electronic civil disobedience.
The trade publication Radio World cites this as proof “about the level to which some pro-LPFM groups have the ears of lawmakers.” One might wish: pro-LPFM groups, because of their reformist goals, must publicly swear off condoning electronic civil disobedience; the fact that the Senate’s considering bringing former radio pirates into the fold is more likely due to the FCC’s impotence in stopping the promulgation of such stations.
While the Local Community Radio Act is now technically on-deck in the Senate’s voting calendar, the disparate (and potentially controversial) language of the two bills may delay rectification in conference committee, which will delay getting the bill to President Obama’s desk, which will ultimately delay the FCC’s implementation of new statutory authority with regard to LPFM.
Even if all goes “well,” I fear this may be a fight won 10 years too late. The primary reason: the promulgation of HD Radio. This technology not only effectively doubles the spectral footprint of every radio station currently on the air, but requires LPFM stations to accept new interference from FM-HD digital sidebands. Most critically, it was legalized at almost exactly the same time as the FCC was wrestling with its LPFM rulemaking.
The most poignant writing on this conundrum comes buried in a memorandum written by J.H. Snider, which was inexplicably filed as an attachment to ex-parte comments tendered in 2006 by the Alliance for Better Campaigns and New America Foundation in the FCC’s digital radio rulemaking. Snider provided LPFM allies with incredible fodder to resist HD Radio through its potential destructiveness to LPFM. And he rightfully blames the “public interest” constituency in D.C. for missing this important development in radio spectrum policy:
Central to the political genius of the radio broadcasting lobbyists was their understanding of the limitations of the press and public interest community. They understood that the press and public interest community were both uninterested in technical details and technically illiterate. They were confident that they wouldn’t read the details and, if they did, wouldn’t understand their significance. This allowed broadcasters to provide a cover story (which might be called the “IBOC cover story”) that was a fundamental distortion of reality but would be accepted as reality.
Radio broadcast lobbyists also had a measure of luck, perhaps far more than they could have dreamed when they started lobbying for the digital radio transition in the early 1990s, about the same time that the broadcast digital TV transition got under way. During the period in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the key digital radio decisions were being made, the public interest community, and the press they educated, were focused on the low power FM debate. LPFM only required a tiny fraction of the FM spectrum whereas IBOC used up huge amounts of it. But low power FM was nevertheless a great issue for the grassroots driven public interest community because everyone understood FM, many individuals and organizations throughout America wanted to be their own FM broadcasters, and the time horizon for implementing LPFM suggested the closest thing you can get to immediate gratification in a spectrum policy proceeding. In the end, IBOC would get more than 95% of the white space between the FM channels but virtually no one in the public interest community would link the issues and alert the press.
And that is why I say, “thanks for the memories”: by the time LPFM reaches a stage of relative “expansion,” incumbent spectrum-occupants will have already sucked up enough space on the dial through digital means so as to make a second-coming of LPFM even less dramatic (and materially meaningful) than its debut. I still support and respect the efforts of LPFM advocates trying to make the Local Community Radio Act law; I just don’t see much strategic value in this particular fight anymore.