Published on Tuesday, March 28, 2000 in the Washington Post
DC To Get Low-Power FM Permits, If Program Survives Congressional Attack
by Frank Ahrens
 
Washington, already center stage in the increasingly heated debate over low-power FM radio, just got a little hotter.

The District of Columbia will be among the first dozen U.S. jurisdictions to be awarded low-power FM licenses, thanks to a lottery held yesterday morning at the Federal Communications Commission.

That is, if Congress doesn't kill the whole program first.

The FCC is pushing hard to license low-power FM radio stations--small broadcast facilities of between one and 100 watts in power, whose signal could cover an area up to about seven miles wide. The proposal is being fought hard by the National Association of Broadcasters--the powerful Washington lobby of commercial broadcasters--and the organization's allies in Congress. They believe the low-power stations will interfere with existing FM stations; the FCC says otherwise.

"Six months from today, the first low-power stations may be on the air," FCC Chairman William E. Kennard said before yesterday's drawing. Then he framed the debate in its larger, more political context, hurling a barb at his chief adversary--the NAB.

"This is about the haves--the broadcast industry--trying to prevent many have-nots--small community and educational organizations--from having just a little piece of the pie," he said.

While the FCC proceeds with the licensing process, Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio) has introduced legislation that would kill low-power outright. His bill has more than 150 co-sponsors and will soon appear before the House Commerce Committee. Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) may call a vote later this week. There is similar, slower-moving legislation in the Senate.

The NAB gave every member of Congress a compact disc playing "simulated interference" that the lobbying organization says will be caused by low-power stations. On it, the signal of public radio station WAMU (88.5) is mixed with a weaker signal to illustrate "cross-talk interference." It sounds like two people speaking simultaneously, one quieter than the other.

In response, the FCC issued its own CD--a clip of an a cappella song by folk rocker Suzanne Vega. The FCC says it bombarded the song with up to 100,000 times the interference that it believes low-power stations would cause. The result is not "cross-talk," but a slight background hiss.

Hours after yesterday's lottery drawing, the rebuttal to the FCC interference studies was already posted on the NAB Web site.

"NAB stands by every study that we presented to the FCC in the [low-power radio] proceeding," NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement. "The undeniable fact is that hundreds of thousands of radio listeners will experience additional interference as a result of" [low-power radio.]"

In the middle of this high-powered political fracas are folks such as the Mount Pleasant Broadcasting Club, one of several groups in the District eager to get their low-power stations on the air. If awarded a license, the club plans to serve the Spanish-speaking residents of Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights, broadcasting public health and labor-organization information (sometimes in Spanish), as well as music, live Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings and poetry "slams."

Along with the District, Alaska, California, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, the Mariana Islands, Maryland, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Utah are among the first jurisdictions eligible to apply for a low-power license.

2000 The Washington Post Company

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