In the waning moments of 2000 Congress has performed a partial abortion of a plan to expand community radio. As part of the federal government’s new budget, the House and Senate have approved a law that trumps the FCC’s authority to move forward with a plan to legalize new low power FM (LPFM) station licenses.
The FCC’s original intent (nearly two years ago) was to create as many as 800 new radio stations around the nation by slightly relaxing interference rules on the FM dial; this plan – and the threat of the competition it would create – mobilized America’s broadcast industry to protect its turf. Commercial broadcasters even teamed up with public radio interests in an unholy alliance never seen before to oppose these potential new voices on the dial.
Even though a record amount of public comment was received on the LPFM rulemaking (an overwhelming majority of it supportive) and the FCC conducted exhaustive studies showing that the new stations would not harm the signals of existing full-power licensees, the National Association of Broadcasters funneled millions of dollars into a propaganda campaign designed to kill the proposal.
Meanwhile, money was changing hands: the NAB spent several million dollars greasing key Congressmen (and women) to overrule the FCC by law if it moved forward with the plan. The FCC did so in January.
While LPFM supporters made some inroads in Congress counteracting the NAB’s money and deception (gaining an powerful ally in Arizona Senator John McCain, a previous outspoken foe of microradio), it wasn’t enough. Grassroots lobbying to kill the NAB’s anti-LPFM bill stopped Congress from openly destroying the new service but it ended up doing the radio industry’s bidding behind the cloak of the federal budget anyway.
As a result, only a few dozen new LPFM stations will ever be licensed in America now; less than two per state, statistically speaking. Those can’t go on the air until the FCC completes yet another interference test, and Congress (meaning the NAB) has reserved the right to deep-six the entire service by as early as February of 2001.
In essence, the people asked their government to fix a problem and were thrown a bone – and even the bone has strings on it.
No Alternative to Just Doing It
There has been a myriad of reactions to LPFM’s evisceration from within the microradio movement; they range from outrage to stoic acceptance, and that’s led to some feisty disagreements over where to go from here in the war to reclaim the airwaves.
Practically speaking, though, there doesn’t seem to be much choice – we tried playing by the rules, and we got screwed. The only option left is to go on the air anyway.
Even though “inside the Beltway” advocates of LPFM will never admit it, it’s been the massive amount of civil disobedience going on nationwide – in the form of unlicensed pirate stations taking the initiative and proving that community media has mass appeal – that spurred the FCC to begin considering a low power radio service in the first place.
And as the true activists fell away from the LPFM lobbying fold (already seeing the outcome for what it’s worth), the momentum for change lost steam.
Now it is time for the direct action campaign to expand and intensify. If the government won’t deal with the people’s desire to be heard, then the lesson must come the hard way.
As for the corporate media interests who successfully fought to quash new community radio: they have made themselves legitimate targets in this fight. Their actions have proven that they do NOT operate in the public interest, and therefore aren’t worthy of being on the air themselves.
In fact, losing the chance at a meaningful LPFM service may be a blessing in disguise. There is no other alternative now to getting on the air than by breaking the law. But when that law is written by corporate cash instead of public will, then it’s a law meant to be broken.
There is no clearer call to arms than that.