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Congress reins in LPFM

The FCC is moving ahead with its new low-power FM service, which was pared down thanks to lobbying by the National Association of Broadcasters.

On Dec. 21 the FCC declared 255 applicants in 21 states and territories eligible for LPFM licenses allowing 100-watt stations with a signals radius of roughly 3 miles.

The eligible applicants include such varied entities as Rhode Island's Newport Musical Arts Association, Jackson Ski Community Radio in New Bartlett, N.H. and Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church in Noxapater, Miss.

FCC is still reviewing applications in states where more than one group has asked for a license in a particular signal area.

It's too early to say how many of the eligible applications actually will win licenses, because outside parties have until Jan. 22 to ask the FCC to deny individual permits. Close to one-third of eligible full-power radio applicants generally must fend off petitions to deny their licenses but the number of challenges expected for these LPFM grants is impossible to predict because this is the inauguration of the service. FCC officials say they will be watching closely over the next few weeks to see if the NAB's active lobbying against LPFM carries over into widespread opposition to specific low-power licensees.

The restrictions on low-power, part of a giant spending bill passed by Congress Dec. 15, blocked the FCC's plan to reduce interference safeguards. The agency wanted to relax the standards in order to create more stations in large markets already filled with full-power radio stations.

The law bars the FCC from dropping a long-standing requirement that stations keep at least two open channels between them. Congress did, however, agree to let the FCC drop that separation requirement in nine test markets. After reporting on its results, the FCC could ask Congress to drop the restriction nationwide. The restriction will drastically reduce the number of LPFM licenses in large cities. The law also bars anyone who has operated an illegal "pirate" radio station from receiving a license. Previously, the ban would have applied only to pirates whose equipment was seized by the federal government for refusing to leave the airwaves after receiving an FCC warning.

The congressional restrictions were a blow to FCC Chairman William Kennard, who pushed to create the service as a countermeasure to the increasing consolidation of commercial stations by nonprofit organizations a chance to control a small portion of the airwaves. "We will see more and more applications," Kennard said. "These new LPFM stations will not create any harmful interference problem for existing radio services."

President Clinton, who grudgingly signed the restrictions into law in order to enact the larger spending deal, echoed Kennard's disappointment. "I am deeply disappointed that Congress chose to restrict the voice of our nation's churches, schools, civic organizations and community groups."

According to an FCC survey of 20 cities with populations greater than 500,000, the number of markets eligible for a 100-watt low-power station drops from 11 to two and the total number of stations from 67 to nine. In 20 surveyed cities with populations between 200,000 and 500,000, the number of stations drops from 155 to 35. Among cities with 50,000 to 200,000, the number falls from 106 to 27.

The NAB praised Congress for reining in the service. "The compromise allows LPFM to go forward while minimizing interference for millions of radio listeners," said NAB President Eddie Fritts.

Public-advocacy groups counter that loosening old interference restrictions would not have created signal conflicts for today's improved receivers. Said Cheryl Leanza, of the Media Access Project, "Unfortunately, broadcaster-driven politics have trumped the public interest."

Thanks to the new rules, the NAB and FCC last week asked the federal appeals court in Washington to remand a court challenge to the agency so the original LPFM rules can be brought into compliance with the new law. The FCC also asked the court to dismiss pirate broadcasters' challenge to the restrictions.

Between Jan. 16 and Jan. 22, the FCC will be accepting applications for stations in Samoa, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, New York, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wisconsin.