The FCC's Three Ring Circus

That’s what I get for taking a month-long hiatus: the FCC goes all P.T. Barnum on our ass, in hopes of making suckers of us all.
In the center ring is the agency’s proposed changes to media ownership regulations. After hinting that he wished to ram through major changes allowing broad consolidation by the end of the year, and hustling to finish public hearings on the subject over the last month, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin – in a highly unusual move – published his own proposal to modify only the regulation that restricts cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in a single market. Unfortunately, as noted by the minority Commissioners, this proposed change contains loopholes that would effectively do away with the cross-ownership ban, while keeping its regulatory shell on the books. This has irked members of Congress, many of whom are threatening to legislatively intervene if the FCC moves on any media ownership rule changes before the end of the year.
In side ring #1, prancing around as the potential symbolic salvation to the ills brought about by media consolidation, is new hopefulness regarding an expansion of the FCC’s low power FM (LPFM) community radio service. First instituted in 2000, then eviscerated by Congressional fiat less than a year later, LPFM proponents have been patiently working Capitol Hill for the last six years trying to get Congress to “re-expand” LPFM back out to its original potential – which might result in thousands of new local community radio stations, including some in the country’s major urban areas. The Senate’s Commerce Committee recently approved legislation that would reverse the 2001 intervention, and there’s a similar bill pending in the House of Representatives. Making the LPFM saga even more hopeful is word from Kevin Martin’s FCC that it would be happy to expand the proliferation of LPFM stations, up to and including modifying certain aspects of the allocation rules affecting full-power stations in order to make room on the dial for new LPFMs.
However, there’s three cautionary points to consider when evaluating LPFM’s true potential. While getting an LPFM expansion bill all the way to a potential floor vote in the Senate is an admirable achievement, there seems to be less momentum in the House (even though more than 50 Representatives are cosponsoring the companion legislation). The legislative agenda is already packed with high-profile, high-stakes action, and given the current rate of Congressional activity more generally, it would be a long shot to think that both houses of the 110th Congress might vote on a stand-alone LPFM expansion bill before the end of its first session. Given that the second session falls during an election year, there’s a real possibility that expanded LPFM could get lost in the political shuffle (even though passing such a bill would please constituents nationwide). And let’s not forget that lame-duck president Bush recently discovered his veto pen.
Secondly, it’s no surprise the FCC’s making happy-noises with regard to expanding LPFM: Chairman Martin hopes that will distract attention from and/or placate critics of the change he’d like to make regarding the media ownership rules. Plus, there’s no political harm in publicly supporting a position that you’re presently statutorily prohibited from acting upon.
This brings us to the third ring of the FCC’s circus: digital radio. Although the agency’s taking no official action with regard to forcing a fix to the problems with HD Radio technology, it is slowly but surely working to make sure no broadcasters get left behind in the analog/digital evolution. Of utmost concern are problems with the AM-HD standard, which has now been conclusively proven to cause harmful interference across the AM dial around the nation. In a harebrained scheme to compensate for interference-related problems in their local service areas, the FCC would like to give every AM station multiple FM translators. This will give AM broadcasters access to the (relatively) feature-rich FM-HD environment, which includes the ability to provide such value-added services as multi-channel broadcasting and data delivery – features not possible in AM-HD alone.
The FCC is formally accepting public comment on the translator-giveaway until January 7; reply comments are due on February 4. This, of course, does not take into consideration the fact that agency staff are on record stating that they’ll start assigning FM translators to AM stations now – long before the proposed rulemaking is complete – if asked real nicely.
From a spectrum-endangering, public-access-to-the-airwaves-preventing point of view, what’s going on in the third ring is of utmost concern. By the time this chapter of the media ownership saga is played out, Congress gets around to re-expanding LPFM, and the FCC gets around to implementing the potentially positive change, how much spectrum might actually be left for new community stations? Unfortunately, the limited resources of the public-interest advocacy community are almost wholly focused on the rest of the circus. In certain respects, this is just like 2000, when everyone was so hot-to-trot over LPFM that the broadcast industry got HD Radio’s rollout rubber-stamped with little public resistance. Woe is us if we fall for the bait-and-switch again.