FCC Moves to Protect Low-Power FM Stations

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The FCC has moved to help low-power FM stations, protecting them from consolidation and making it easier for them to get on the air. Advocates say the new rules should help about 40 community stations around the country that are facing encroachment from full-power broadcasters.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

This past week, the Federal Communications Commission held an unusually contentious public meeting. Furious lobbying over the FCC's authority over cable television delayed proceedings for 12 hours. The commissioners did manage to pass several new rules, though, including some designed to protect low-power FM radio stations.

From NPR member station WHYY in Philadelphia, Joel Rose reports on the state of these new community stations.

JOEL ROSE: If you happen to be listening to the radio in Oregon's Willamette Valley, southwest of Portland, you might here something like this.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in Spanish)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking in Spanish)

ROSE: That's a call-in show about immigration reform in Spanish, like almost everything that's broadcast on low-power FM station KPCN.

Mr. LARRY KLEINMAN (Secretary, Northwest Treeplanters and Farm Workers Union): Public affairs, commentary, music produced by volunteer programmers, you know, it's a classic community radio. And our nickname, if you will, is Radio Movemiento, which means movement radio.

ROSE: Larry Kleinman is the secretary of the Northwest Treeplanters and Farm Workers Union, which launched movement radio a year ago in the heart of Oregon's agricultural country. KPCN was put on the air by a community organization in order to address community concerns.

It's the kind of station FCC Commissioner Michael Copps told his colleagues is essential in a radio landscape that's dominated by big media companies.

Commissioner MICHAEL COPPS (Federal Communications Commission): Low power is truly radio of the people, by the people and for the people. And we shouldn't let it perish.

ROSE: That was one of the goals of the rules adopted by the FCC at Tuesday's meeting. Shortly after KPCN went on the air at 96.3 FM, a high-power station in eastern Oregon decided to move closer to Portland and broadcast at 96.1.

For a while, it looked like KPCN might be off the air. But now, thanks to the new FCC rules, Larry Kleinman says movement radio can, well, move to another spot on the dial.

Mr. KLEINMAN: That's not, however, an effortless or a harmless change for us. But it does seem to give promise to us not being at some merely obliterated from the air after having struggled so hard to get there.

ROSE: KPCN is one of about 40 community stations around the country that are facing encroachment from full-power broadcasters. Low-power FM advocates say the new FCC rules should help protect most of those community stations.

But at Tuesday's meeting, Republican Commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate dissented in part saying the new rules will give low-power stations too much protection.

Commissioner DEBORAH TAYLOR TATE (Federal Communications Commission): Low-power FM licensees provide an incredibly great service to their communities. But they accept their license knowing that they are a secondary service and thus accept about the risk and the rewards that that status entails.

ROSE: Ever since 2000, when Congress authorized low-power FM, full-power stations and networks, including NPR, have complained that smaller stations would interfere with the existing signals.

That's one of the reasons why there have been no new licenses for low-power stations granted in major cities. At the same time, low-power FM advocates say big broadcasters have been applying for the few open frequencies on the dial and using them for repeaters to extend the reach of what they're already broadcasting.

Pete Tridish is the founder of the Prometheus Radio Project. The nonprofit organization builds low-power stations and successfully sued the FCC the last time the commission tried to relax the rules on media consolidation.

Mr. PETE TRIDISH (Founder, Prometheus Radio Project): The FCC really could be doing a lot more to promote localism. And unfortunately, in this decision, they fell short. But fortunately, they didn't close the box.

ROSE: Tridish's colleague Hannah Sassaman found something to like in this week's ruling.

Ms. HANNAH SASSAMAN (Program Director, Prometheus Radio Project): Our momentum is skyrocketing. And it's not because of Prometheus. It's because community groups in Chanute, Kansas, in Uvalde, Texas, everyone from civil rights organizations to Christian churches, say that community radio is a no-brainer.

ROSE: Sassaman says the next step is to get Congress to approve new low-power FM licenses in urban areas. A bill recommending that has already passed the Senate committee. It could come up in the House early next year.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

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