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LPFM lite passes House

Supporters of low-power radio are unbowed, despite a House vote late last week to drastically curtail the new service.

Meanwhile, the fight between the bill's backers and the FCC is becoming increasingly bitter. On Friday, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Michael Oxley (R-Ohio), and House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) were putting finishing touches on a request for a Justice Department investigation accusing the FCC of improper lobbying. They say the agency prepared talking points used against the bill, a violation of prohibitions placed on independent federal agencies.

FCC officials say they did nothing wrong and noted that agencies are permitted to prepare information when lawmakers request it.

Although the bill passed by a margin of more than 2 to 1, the bill's 274 votes don't provide the two-thirds majority needed to ensure a veto-proof voting bloc. The House needs 290 votes to override President Clinton's expected veto.

Bolstering the hopes of those in favor of a veto were the 142 votes garnered by an unsuccessful amendment that would have given the FCC a better chance of moving forward with its full plan.

"It is clear from today's vote that the National Association of Broadcasters won one battle, but that it will lose the war," said public advocacy group Media Access Project in a release. "This shows that more than a third of the members prefer a bill which permits the FCC to go forward."

In another sign of weakness, the bill's sponsors failed in their bid to bring the legislation to a vote early last week with a group of relatively uncontentious bills that would have required a two-thirds majority for passage.

Still, the bill's supporters were jubilant after moving a bill they say is necessary to prevent full-power stations from being harmed by interference. "If the FCC proceeds at its current scale and pace, it's likely that the quality of radio signals will be damaged all across this country," said Oxley.

The bill, described as a compromise by its backers, would let the FCC create a low-power service but would require the agency to get congressional approval before going ahead with plans to drop some long-standing interference safeguards in order to fit more of the stations on the dial. The restriction would drastically cut back the number of stations that would be created from roughly 400 in the top 60 markets to fewer than 100.

An unsuccessful amendment by Democrats Thomas Barrett of Wisconsin and Bobby Rush of Illinois would have let the FCC go ahead after conducting an interference study proving such a move was safe.

The FCC is pushing to create noncommercial low-power stations, which would have power levels capped at 100 watts and would have coverage ranges of no more than a few square miles.

The legislative fight over LPFM now moves to the Senate, where prospects for a tougher bill by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) are less clear. No hearings on the legislation are scheduled, and Senate leaders have not indicated whether they are willing to move the bill. Gregg is trying to have his plan, which would kill LPFM entirely, attached to must-pass government funding bills to make it harder to block.

Supporters of low-power FM say they will have more ammunition to fight the legislation in the Senate. For starters, powerful lobbying groups such as the League of Cities and the AFL-CIO have now joined to battle the bill. Secondly, they will argue that relaxing interference safeguards as the FCC proposes is no threat, because the very same leeway has been given to 312 full-power stations with no complaints of interference.