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Low-power FM takes hit on Hill

Rather than shoot the FCC' s low-power radio initiative out of the air, Capitol Hill opponents chose to clip its wings.

A late-hour compromise, brokered shortly before the House Commerce Committee' s March 29 vote on legislation intended to kill the agency' s new FM radio service, will instead drastically cut the number of low-power stations the FCC could license. That' s because it would reverse the FCC's decision to relax channel separation requirements.

What's more, the panel voted to restrict the commission' s authority to alter interference safeguards in the future. If enacted, the bill would bar the FCC from relaxing existing safeguards requiring the second and third channels adjacent to existing stations to remain clear.

The FCC' s plan would have created up to 400 low-power outlets in the country's top 60 markets, but the Commerce Committee's plan could cut that number by 75%, the agency said.

FCC Chairman William Kennard said the compromise will do little more than hurt community groups, schools, churches and other noncommercial outfits that would have been permitted to launch the stations. "The only real interference to low-power FM radio is from high-priced Washington lobbyists," he said in a written statement.

Though the bill falls short of the broadcast industry' s drive to kill low power, the compromise still gives the National Association of Broadcasters much of what it wants. "I think we should be very happy," said NAB counsel Jack Goodman.

Enactment is still a long way off. Supporters of the bill, including sponsor Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), concede that a bruising floor fight would have resulted if the panel voted to kill low power outright. But their effort to dodge a floor fight may not pay off in the Senate, which is generally more reluctant to tramp on the turf of other government branches. Though the Senate bill is backed by powerful lawmakers, such as Banking Chairman Phil Gramm and Budget Chairman Pete Domenici, FCC officials hope the Senate as a whole will be less likely to go along with a plan that would strip the FCC' s traditional authority to set interference standards.

Clinton administration officials and Vice President Al Gore say they support the FCC' s plan, but have not said whether the president would veto the current bill.

With the bill' s fate far from decided, the FCC is moving forward with plans to get stations on the air. Last week, Kennard and Commissioner Gloria Tristani led the FCC lottery to decide which of five state groups would be the first to receive low-power outlets. The winners: Alaska, California, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Mariana Islands, Maryland, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Utah. Applications for those markets will be accepted in May, and licenses granted by early September. Applications for four other market groups will be accepted in staggered dates.

Under the revised bill, new low-power stations could be created but only under the FCC' s long-standing channel separation requirements. The FCC, to make sure that a substantial number of low-power stations were created in top markets, voted in January to let them locate on third-adjacent channels to existing full-power stations.

The relaxed standards angered many GOP lawmakers, who accused the FCC of rushing the initiative without adequate testing. Kennard counters that the agency has conducted extensive tests and has received a battery of data from industry and low-power proponents.

But more real-world testing is needed, said Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), who brokered the compromise with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the panel' s ranking Democrat. "What matters is what happens to a car radio in a 1975 Chevy pickup," she said.

The Commerce Committee's bill also would allow the FCC to conduct a nine-city trial using the agency' s relaxed interference standards and to report results by Feb. 1, 2001.

But the FCC' s supporters said low-power stations will have insufficient lobbying clout to convince Congress to relax standards permanently, no matter what the FCC' s results show.