North East RadioWatch: February 4, 2000

The FCC Caves

by Scott Fybush

It's rare that we lead NERW with national news instead of a local item, but the FCC stunned us just moments after last week's issue went to press with an unbelievable about-face that's left us with little doubt about what LPFM will really sound like, if it isn't stopped dead in its tracks by the pending NAB lawsuit.

You'll recall that last week's NERW editorial hailed the FCC's ruling in the WQEX/Pittsburgh case as a milestone development with potential to stop the unbridled spread of "noncommercial" religious FM and translator networks around the country, to the detriment of would-be LPFM applicants, whose new stations have to protect existing translators.

Well, it wasn't much of a milestone. Almost from the moment the ruling was issued, the religious broadcasters began beating the drums loudly against the FCC. We saw a "news" item on Pat Robertson's CBN News that more or less claimed that the FCC was trying to wipe out religious radio and TV (which of course it wasn't; the ruling never would have affected any commercial religious broadcasters and didn't even explicitly apply to radio at all). Then the politicians came on the scene, flooding the FCC with concerned letters and phone calls -- and, in the words of Commissioner Gloria Tristani (our new hero here at NERW Central), "this supposedly independent agency has capitulated to an organized campaign of distortion and demagoguery."

What the FCC did was to vote to vacate the "guidance" provided by the WQEX decision, eliminating any ability in the future to cite the concerns expressed in WQEX as a consideration in other noncomm matters. Still not clear? Check out the concurring statement from Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth: "[T]here should be no doubt that the Mass Media Bureau is unauthorized to engage in any formal or informal practice of directly reviewing the substance of stations' order to obtain licensing approval."

In short, it's up to the broadcaster to act responsibly. In a sane world, we'd be standing up in cheering -- but this is the world of broadcast deregulation at the turn of the century, and anything goes.

As an example, we offer the "Family Worship Center," licensee of WJFM Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In the week after the FCC gave the green light to LPFM, knowing that existing translators will receive protection from LPFMs while future ones won't, WJFM filed for, by our count, 130 translators in just about every corner of the country. WJFM may get this week's coveted Spectrum Hog award, but it's hardly alone. KAWZ Twin Falls, already the nation's biggest translator primary, applied for 14 more; Educational Media Foundation (the K-Love folks) applied for 9; and Broadcasting for the Challenged and the Calvary Satellite Network decided to shoot for new primaries instead, with BFC filing for four new stations and CSN for seven (several of which would be in New on below for the details).

The point here is this: The FCC has rolled over and pretty much admitted it's not only willing to let the big religious broadcasters get away with a massive grab of the limited noncomm spectrum, but it's also shown by its actions that it will cave readily to any pressure from the religious broadcasters' cronies on the Hill. Don't expect anything different from LPFM -- if it survives the NAB (see "Spectrum Hogs," above) and if there are any frequencies left after the onslaught of translator applications over the next few weeks.

You can check out the FCC's decision, and you can see a sampling of the past week's translator apps if you have the stomach. And before we get on with the rest of the week's news, a reminder -- again -- that NERW is not opposed to religious broadcasting in general, just to the idea that any broadcaster is entitled to the huge chunks of spectrum being carved out by the biggest translator abusers.

Off the soapbox we go...and on to:

We'll close with one more obituary, this time on the national level: Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg died Saturday (1/29) at age 69 in Detroit, closing a four-decade career that all but defined black radio in America. Steinberg started in radio at the legendary WDIA (1070) in Memphis, moving to Detroit in 1963 to work at WCHB, then on 1440. In 1967, she moved to WJLB (1400/97.9), where she spent 48 hours on the air non-stop during the riots that summer in an attempt to calm tensions. When WJLB's owner sought to pull Steinberg's show off the music-oriented FM signal in 1982, she formed a group to buy WJLB(AM) from Booth, renaming the station WQBH ("Queen Broadcasts Here"). She bought WQBH outright in 1997. An inductee to the Black Radio Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Steinberg continued to host her daily "Inspiration Time" midday show on WQBH until just a few weeks ago. She'll be missed.

That's it for another week; we'll see you next Friday!

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