Oxleymorons and FM Radio

On January 20, when it lifted the ban on low-power FM (LPFM) broadcasting, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened the airwaves to as many as 1,000 new noncommercial radio stations operating at or below 100 watts. The goal of the FCC's initiative is to counter the consolidation and homogenization of the radio industry that has followed in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996: Over the past three years, for example, while the number of radio stations has risen by nearly 4 percent, the number of station owners has fallen by 12 percent. Alarmed by these statistics, the FCC hopes that LPFM will provide a forum for the minority interests, church and community groups, and schools and local musicians who under the old rules found commercial radio access either prohibitively expensive or insufficiently available as free public-service airtime. Unsurprisingly, the LPFM plan has met with support from many citizens and organizations and has been attacked by commercial broadcasters and their sympathizers on Capitol Hill.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which represents the commercial interests, claims signal and static bleed from the low-power stations will drive radio listeners to different media--and therefore drive radio advertisers away. (One NAB spokesperson told me the interference will be so severe that the FCC's LPFM policy will "[erode] the foundation of the industry's business model.") That the NAB's findings are flatly contradicted by studies performed by the FCC and by the privately funded Media Access Project--both of which conclude that LPFM interference with commercial stations will be negligible--has not stopped NAB President Edward Fritts from claiming that he will "review every option to undo the damage caused by low-power radio."

The NAB's opposition to LPFM has found support in Congress where, as of early February, 60 members have signed onto Ohio Representative Michael Oxley's Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 1999. If passed, the bill would annul the LPFM policy and prevent any similar plans from getting off the ground. Michael Bracy, co-director of the D.C.-based lobbying group Bracy Williams and a pro bono consultant to LPFM advocates, finds Oxley's opposition to LPFM hard to reconcile with the Republican congressman's strong support of anti-smut and communications decency legislation. In 1998 Oxley sponsored a bill intended to protect minors from lewd material on commercial Internet sites. "The same guy who wanted to clean up the Internet is now defending the commercial broadcasters who put Howard Stern on the air," says Bracy. The awkwardness of Oxley's position makes Bracy wonder if the NAB hasn't mismanaged its lobbying campaign. "One of the worst things lobbyists can do," he says, "is get their friends in Congress or in the press involved in a fight that they can't win or that makes them look bad to the public." Bracy thinks the NAB may have taken too combative a stance in its opposition to LPFM; by clumsily presenting LPFM as the preoccupation of a radical fringe, rather than as the abiding concern of middle-American groups like the Lutheran Church and the Louisiana Music Association, the NAB's congressional supporters will alienate far more people than they convince. "The opposition to LPFM can't win in the court of public opinion," says Bracy.

Advocates of LPFM, on the other hand, offer several compelling uses for the new radio stations, such as local broadcasts to communities of recently arrived immigrants or programming centered around local schools, musicians, and the meetings of city government and neighborhood groups.

Oxley's Republican colleague W.J. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana--chairman of the House subcommittee on telecommunications--takes an even tougher view of the FCC's advocacy of LPFM than Oxley does: The new service, Tauzin believes, not only threatens the integrity of the existing broadcast spectrum, but it also stands as a prime example of the FCC's tendency to overstep its authority. The FCC is a "rogue agency," says Tauzin spokesperson Ken Johnson, and "Billy's determined to rein it in and curb its authority. It works for us, not the other way around."

Well, that's sort of true--but only in the way that Tauzin, Oxley, and the other congressional foes of LPFM, in turn, work for the thousands of people who have petitioned the FCC for LPFM service, and for the scores of others who will benefit from it.