Political Static May Block Low-Power FM By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday , May 15, 2000

There's a scene in the 1973 movie "American Graffiti" where deejay Wolfman Jack spins records in the window of a storefront radio station while kids push up to the glass, transistor radios pressed to their ears.

That's Amanda Huron's dream for Mount Pleasant.

Maybe it would be one of her radio students from nearby Cesar Chavez Charter High School in the window, spinning salsa CDs. Or maybe it would be a union advocate discussing labor issues in Spanish. Or maybe it would be a novice reporter who had interviewed Latinos aboard the No. 42 Metrobus that runs on 16th Street. Or it just might be Huron herself, playing a CD by her band, Scaramouche. (Hey--station manager's prerogative.)

Huron, 27, with short dyed blond hair and a scab on her chin from a bicycle crash during last month's World Bank demonstration, is the face of low-power FM--the hottest issue in radio right now. Two years ago the Federal Communications Commission proposed a new kind of radio station--a tiny noncommercial FM broadcaster with a range of about three miles. Huron and her mates at the Mount Pleasant Broadcasting Club want to build a low-power station to serve the Spanish-speakers in her neighborhood. It would work, she said, because it would broadcast the type of programs that most of Washington's radio stations ignore.

"People will listen if they know their kids will be on the radio," Huron said. "If they know a tenants' rights guy is on the radio, they'll listen."

But she may never get her chance.

There are mighty forces arrayed against Huron and her ilk across the country--members of Congress, lobbyists and sprawling radio corporations, including National Public Radio. Opponents say that the low-power stations would cause static-filled interference--that Huron's station might bleed onto Howard Stern's morning show, for example, or WTOP's broadcast of Orioles games.

The FCC said that won't happen, but a sizable majority of Congress no longer trusts the FCC on this issue. Which means that this story, looking at first blush like a David vs. Goliath tale, turns out to be something else--a classic Washington power struggle of political Olympians clashing miles above Huron's head.

The FCC is forging ahead with what it believes is a do-right project. Congress feels steamrolled by an "arrogant" FCC and fights back with legislation that would put the brakes on the process. Rock-and-rollers plan benefit concerts on the Capitol steps. Lobbyists lobby. The fight now rages in the Senate and includes the likes of former presidential candidate John McCain (R-Ariz.). The White House has weighed in with an administration policy statement backing the low-power proposal.

And way down below, Huron walks the gritty streets of Mount Pleasant and asks the neighbors what they'd like to hear on her would-be station. And waits for its fate to be decided.

An Idea That Grew

How did a speck-on-the-windshield idea escalate into a such a conflagration?

It got personal.

More than two years ago, FCC Chairman William Kennard issued a little-noticed proposal to study the feasibility of low-power FM stations with a broadcast range of a few blocks to about four miles away from a transmitting tower. By contrast, a big station, such as DC101 (WWDC-FM), can be heard 70 miles from its point of origin.

The FCC's little idea got big in a hurry. By early this year the agency had received 3,000 mailed and e-mailed comments about low-power FM radio service and 100,000 visits by users on the attendant World Wide Web site. Community groups, such as Huron's, as well as churches, schools, colleges, health organizations and independent musicians nationwide wanted their own stations.

Kennard, 43, was overwhelmed by the response. Kennard, a radio junkie, held a black students' public affairs show on the college radio station while an undergraduate at Stanford University. In an era of increasing radio consolidation, he believes low-power service is a way to return some power to the people. To illustrate, he need only look to Washington, the nation's ninth-largest radio market, where two companies--CBS/Infinity and the merging Clear Channel and AMFM Inc.--own 13 of the most profitable stations. Nationwide, the number of station owners has dropped to 4,000 from 5,000 since the 1996 Telecommunications Act opened the way for consolidation. In trips around the country, Kennard championed the low-power stations, which could not sell advertising or be owned by existing radio companies.

When it became apparent that the usually plodding FCC was on a fast track to license low-power stations, radio stations already on the air became nervous. A big station such as WJFK-FM can bill more than $20 million in advertising in a year, so the stakes are high.

Under their lobbying group--the National Association of Broadcasters, one of the most powerful and wealthiest lobbies in Washington--existing broadcasters have fought the low-power proposal with everything they've got. The association's president, Eddie Fritts, calls it a front-burner issue for his organization.

Last November the NAB lobbied its many friends in Congress hard enough that Rep. Michael G. Oxley (R-Ohio) introduced a bill that would have killed the low-power stations. The House passed a compromise bill last month that would allow a small percentage of the stations to be licensed after a testing period. But even the watered-down legislation was meant to send Kennard a strong message.

"It was clear that the FCC thought all along that they could run roughshod through this without much opposition," Oxley said. "We're hoping that the vote will bring them up short until Congress can sort this out."

This fight has chafed Kennard on two fronts: big broadcasters "have nice franchises in their communities and don't want anyone else getting a piece of the pie;" and that his agency--the FCC, which is entrusted with maintaining the integrity of the radio spectrum--is having its engineering expertise questioned by members of Congress.

"Are we going to take this out of the hands of an impartial, expert agency," Kennard said, "and put it in the hands of people who are not technicians and are not competent to make these calls?"

This is likely the sort of "arrogance" to which Oxley and his colleagues are referring. In fact, Fritts, who once employed Kennard as an NAB lawyer, said "some have said that if [former FCC chairman] Reed Hunt was politically tone deaf, Kennard has exceeded that."

Strained Relationship

The relationship between Kennard and some House Republicans has been strained for some time. But things hit their nadir in February at a hearing before the House telecommunications subcommittee.

The previous month the FCC had given its go-ahead to low-power service. House lawmakers called a hearing to air the pros and cons of the issue. Several FCC engineers and policymakers testified.

Kennard did not attend.

For subcommittee members, this was a slap in the face. Kennard says he was unable to attend the hearings because of a "long-standing" commitment to meet with broadcasters in Florida. But the damage was done. As the House moved toward an April vote on the compromise bill, the FCC faxed members information on low-power radio, attempting to refute the NAB's interference arguments. The effort made little impact and even irritated some members, who thought the FCC's "information" went too far. After getting such a fax, one member's office called another and said, "My God--I think I've just been lobbied by the FCC," a violation of federal law.

Commerce Committee member Billy Tauzin (R-La.) escalated matters, sending Kennard a letter, threatening to sic the Justice Department on him for lobbying. Kennard said the FCC did nothing wrong.

But there was more than political gamesmanship afoot. Interviews with several members of the radio industry reveal concern that the FCC has not performed sufficient engineering studies to determine if the low-power stations would, in fact, cause interference.

Kennard calls the low-power fight a "battle of dueling engineers." The FCC's engineers claim one thing, the NAB's engineers refute it, and vice versa. The FCC tested several radios at its lab in Columbia, but was criticized for not doing field testing: Driving a low-power transmitter while broadcasting to see if it interferes with existing radio stations. The FCC counters that its lab tests are adequate. Some within the agency bemoan a tight budget that pinches exhaustive engineering studies.

The bottom line is that the engineers on both sides have found essentially the same test data, but interpret it differently. The FCC said the low-power stations may cause "acceptable" interference--that is to say, almost impossible to hear. The NAB counters that any additional interference is unacceptable.

"The FCC is trying to break the laws of physics," Fritts said, by squeezing low-power stations onto an already crowded FM dial. And there is anxiety within the FCC that, even if its science is good, the agency did a poor job of presenting it to Congress.

There is dissent on the other side as well. Alfredo Alonso, president of Mega Communications, a growing Spanish-language radio chain in Silver Spring, sides with the NAB's fight against low-power stations. Not because of their potential interference, but because he fears stations like Huron's in Mount Pleasant would siphon off his listeners.

"Interference?" Alonso said, making a dismissive sound. "Those little [low-power] stations won't interfere with big stations."

Perhaps the most unlikely opponent of low-power radio, however, is National Public Radio. Founded as a noncommercial community radio service, NPR stands for everything low-power radio is about. And NPR President Kevin Klose said his organization does support low-power--in theory--but fears that the new stations would interfere with a public radio service that reads to the blind. Klose and Kennard said their two groups tried to resolve their differences, but several frosty meetings between staffs failed to reach a settlement. NPR eventually backed the House legislation, "stunning" and "disappointing" Kennard.

On April 13, as the NAB held a convention in Las Vegas, the House voted 274 to 110 for the bill restricting low-power radio. The vote, which Oxley claims is veto proof, was cheered by NAB conventioneers, even as vendors hawked low-power broadcast equipment on the convention floor.

Now the fight moves to the Senate. In February, Sens. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) and Rod Grams (R-Minn.) introduced a bill similar to Oxley's that would kill the FCC's low-power proposal. On May 8 McCain introduced a compromise bill that would allow the FCC to license low-power stations with some caveats. The NAB opposes McCain's bill.

Low-power backers, such as Huron, have fought their battle at the grass-roots level, inundating lawmakers with e-mails and holding demonstrations. Advocacy groups, such as Washington's Low Power Radio Coalition, now are lining up political clout of their own to offset the NAB's heavy hitters, such as Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who is college pals with the NAB's Fritts. Sen. Bob Kerry (D-Neb.) has come out for low-power radio and has sent his Senate colleagues a letter urging them to do likewise.

"I consider myself a friend of broadcasters but we have to ask ourselves, 'Can we count on local broadcasters to give a damn about local communities and are they going to tell you the kinds of things you need to know?' " Kerry said, adding that the Senate may vote on a low-power bill by the Memorial Day recess. "The answer is likely to be 'occasionally' but not all of the time."

Raw Voices

Huron folds herself into a used sofa in an elegantly decaying mansion overlooking Malcom X/Meridian Hill Park on a recent Sunday. It is the headquarters of the Council of Latino Agencies, an advocacy group. She is hashing over the low-power issue with Natalie Avery, 33; Jessica Alvarez, 23; and Frederick Kenner, 30, all of whom badly want a low-power radio station in the area that includes Mount Pleasant, Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.

Alvarez, who works for the council, said that many area residents are recent immigrants, unfamiliar with elements of American life, such as the role of a child's school counselor. A local radio station could educate these folks, she said.

"Here, you fight ethnic isolation," Alvarez said. "But everyone uses the radio."

Avery, a deejay who runs the Mount Pleasant Broadcasting Club's Web site, believes a low-power station could help unify the community. And like everyone else in the room, she is sick to death of what they call slickly produced, homogenized pop radio peddled by big corporations.

"Low power would be a self-expression of raw voices," she said.

A year and a half ago, Huron marched on the FCC's former M Street NW headquarters with hundreds of low-power advocates. They carted a huge puppet of Kennard, which was operated by strings controlled by an even larger puppet representing the NAB. You get the point. Now, the FCC chairman and his former adversaries find themselves aligned in limbo: Congress may simultaneously kill Kennard's legacy and Huron's dream.

Late this month the FCC is expected to open the window for low-power FM radio applications. Huron will apply--if Congress doesn't halt the process--and has a good shot at getting a station. But that doesn't mean she'll keep it. Low-power opponents aren't likely to give up the fight.

"I could get my license in June," Huron said, "and get it taken away in October."

2000 The Washington Post Company

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