WASHINGTON (BP)–Tucked away in the budget legislation that President Clinton will soon sign is a provision sought by the nation’s largest broadcasters that sharply curtails the ambitious plans of the Federal Communications Commission to issue licenses for low-power FM radio stations to 1,000 or more schools, churches and other small community organizations, according to a report from The New York Times.
The provision, by setting new technical standards and repealing those already determined by the F.C.C., makes it all but impossible for licenses to be issued in cities of even modest size. Officials say that the tough standards will mean that at most a handful of stations in the least populated parts of the country may be started, although even that is now uncertain, the Times reported.
Taking a direct slap at the regulators, the new law shifts the policy- making authority from the F.C.C. to Congress to set standards and issue licenses for low-power FM stations. This is the first time in recent memory that the lawmakers actually stripped the agency of the power to manage an important part of the spectrum.
The F.C.C.’s low-power radio plan was conceived last January to counter the huge consolidation in the broadcasting industry that the agency’s chairman, William E. Kennard, concluded had led to a sharp decline in the diversity of voices on the airwaves. Kennard saw the plan as a cornerstone of his agenda to promote civil rights issues at the F.C.C.
Large broadcasters, including National Public Radio, had complained that the creation of so many low- power stations would have produced interference with their broadcasts. The F.C.C. countered that the true concern of the broadcasters was new competition from small stations.
Kennard said the legislation “shows the dangers of politicizing spectrum management.”
“This is a resource that everyone has to share,” Kennard said in an interview. “We can’t allow people who have the spectrum to use their political clout to shut out voices that don’t have the same clout. This highlights the power of incumbency. Companies that have spectrum guard it jealously, and they can use Congress to prevent new voices from having access to the airwaves.”
Known as the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, the law takes power away from the F.C.C. – an independent regulatory agency – to issue important rules for licenses for FM radio stations and gives it to Congress, where the biggest broadcasters have considerably more influence.
If the agency wants to restore the low-power program to its original size, the law instructs the regulators to conduct more studies of the effect of the signals of low-power stations on larger radio stations and then come back to Congress, which will now be the new rule-making body, to decide whether to issue more low- power radio station licenses.
The F.C.C. has received more than 1,200 applications from organizations in 20 states for low-power radio stations. Officials at the agency said today that, at best, a tiny fraction of those organizations would now be able to broadcast.
The White House had supported the F.C.C. plan and had criticized efforts to scale it back. In recent weeks, administration officials had been critical of the proposal that was put into the budget package.
The measure will be signed by President Clinton just as the F.C.C. would have issued its first batch of new licenses to schools and churches. Instead, F.C.C. officials today suggested wryly that the Congress had converted the plan into “our new rural program.”
The nation’s major broadcasters, joined by National Public Radio, had accused the F.C.C. of shoddy technical work and said the original plan would lead to tremendous amounts of signal interference that would have created poor reception for more established radio stations.