One bright spot in the decade it's taken for the House to finally pass a very good bill on community radio licensing might be that all this haggling is defining a place for LPFM (short for "low-power FM") in the regulated media landscape.

To make sense of LPFM, it's helpful, I think, to think of the wireless radio spectrum as a pool. It's a community pool, owned by the people of the United States. The FCC is our hired lifeguard. Worried that the pool was getting monopolized by too few swimmers, the FCC took the initiative to start handing out passes to, say, frogs -- who, in our tortured allegory, are grassroots broadcasters working at 10 or 100 watts, which includes schools, unions, and church groups. The existing swimmers -- the National Association of Broadcasters, NPR, and others -- complained to their friends in Congress that the froggies were creating unpleasant ripples in the pool. (Stay with me.)

In 2000, Congress ordered the FCC to stop handing out passes, and, so as not to look like the bad guys, called for a scientific study on amphibian ripple effects. The study found that frogs really weren't creating that many waves, and NAB and NPR agreed to drop their objections, as long as the FCC promised to yank the froggies out of the pool should they cause trouble.

Community radio's fate now goes to the Senate. There, it's backed by an odd couple pairing of Sens. McCain and Cantwell. The bill has already passed the Commerce Committee, and advocates expect it to pass the full Senate. The glass-half-full way to look at all the legislative wrangling up to this point is that it will have established that Congress expects community radio to have a place on the wireless spectrum, and has pointedly empowered the FCC to make it so.

--Nancy Scola

(Photo credit: David Jackmanson)

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