North East RadioWatch: March 31, 2000

Nassau, Ackerley Grow; We Rant About LPFM

by Scott Fybush

Finally this week, a "Mini-Rant" on one of our favorite topics, LPFM:

Even as the FCC moved closer this week to opening the window for the first set of LPFM applications, the powers that be at the House Commerce Committee sent H.R. 3439 (the "Preservation of Broadcasting Act") along to the full House for what's likely to be an easy victory.

The approval comes amidst nasty words back and forth between the FCC and the National Association of Broadcasters, whose high-powered lobbyists distributed a CD on Capitol Hill that they claimed simulated the kind of interference full-power stations would receive from LPFMs on third-adjacent channels. The FCC says the CD blatantly misrepresents the actual interference that might result; the NAB, unsurprisingly, has filled its Web site with expert testimony to the contrary.

Meantime, the Senate version of the bill continues its path to a vote as well.

NERW has little doubt about how this will all end. Money talks in Washington, and the NAB and its members have plenty of it to spend. They'll get their way in the end, and the idea of legal LPFM will become not much more than an interesting footnote.

But we can't let it die without once more pointing out an amazing bit of hypocrisy that, incredibly, has gone all but unmentioned by almost everyone involved in the LPFM issue.

Sitting down? Good. Listen:

LPFM exists.

LPFM has existed legally in the United States for decades.

LPFM, as it now exists, is in some cases operating with precisely the same technical specifications that the NAB and friends claim to be so worried about.

Many of the beneficiaries of LPFM as it now exists are precisely the same broadcasters most vociferous in their support for the NAB's campaign against LPFM as it might exist.

Longtime NERW readers will by now know exactly what I'm talking about; the one word that's been all but verboten in the public LPFM debate: translators.

It's been increasingly hard to sit quietly and watch the NAB, the FCC, and everyone else claim that there's no way to tell what kind of interference a station on a third-adjacent channel will give to a full-power station, when the examples are all around us.

So the NAB claims full-power FMs will be permanently hurt by LPFMs three channels away? Show me the public outcry from listeners to Boston's WZLX, a full B at 100.7, then. After all, there's been a legal LPFM operating on 101.3 less than a mile from WZLX's transmitter for more than a year. (You could argue that the station in question, WFNX's translator W267AI, is only 7 watts -- but it's up so high on the Hancock Tower than once you adjust for height, it's not much different from the FCC's proposed LP-100 service).

For that matter, where's the public outcry from WZLX listeners affected by third-adjacent WBRS at 100.1 in Waltham, with its mighty 25 watts just 600 kHz away?

Why, for that matter, have big broadcasters like Disney/ABC rushed to shoehorn second-adjacent allocations as close to their major market stations as possible? (Case in point: KMEO in Flower Mound, Texas, running a full 100 kilowatts just 0.4 MHz and sixty-odd miles on the other side of the Dallas/Fort Worth market from ABC's highly successful KSCS 96.3). How is it that listeners in the San Francisco Bay Area have no problems with the San Jose stations on second-adjacent channels from San Francisco? (While we're at it, what about all the second-adjacent issues that you'd think would exist in the 50 miles between Boston and Providence?)

Turn to the noncomm end of the dial and the engineering realities become even more apparent: Just 3.1 miles of Beacon Street separates WZBC's 1000 watts on 90.3 and WBUR-FM's 50 kilowatts on 90.9, yet the public outcry from listeners "denied...clear reception of their favorite stations" (the NAB's words) has been, well, less than deafening. NERW suspects WBUR even has listeners in the very Boston College dormitory where WZBC's antenna is located.

The point here is this: The engineering argument against third-adjacent LPFMs is specious at best. It's clear from the real world that third-adjacent spacing on FM works fine in cases involving much more power than LPFMs would...and we haven't even had to turn to Canada (where real live LPFM has existed without interference concerns for years) to make our case.

It's no surprise to see the NAB and its allies on the Hill using this engineering smokescreen; it certainly sounds persuasive to a lawmaker with other things to worry about -- after all, who'd vote to deny an elderly listener her favorite station? (Again, the NAB's argument, not mine!)

And it's no surprise to see the word "translator" so obviously missing from the NAB's arguments. After all, the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) is a major supporter of the NAB's efforts, and if lawmakers understood that the thousands of KAWZ, WPCS, WJFM, and WJSO translators out there were also "LPFM" -- and thus a threat (by the NAB's logic) to the continued stability of American broadcasting (not to mention the flag, apple pie, and possibly motherhood itself), who knows what kind of legislation might result?

But it is surprising that Bill Kennard's FCC, otherwise so sensible in its attempts to restore at least a bit of the broadcast environment to the public, has been so quiet about the translator issue. We'd have thought someone in the FCC might have come up with similar real-world examples to the ones just offered...yet the word "translator" has been just as absent from the FCC's vocabulary, even as behind the scenes, KAWZ, WJFM, WPCS, and company are quietly getting to gobble literally hundreds of frequencies a month that could have been used by LPFM if it had been allowed to happen. It's amazing to pick up M Street each week, see column after column of translator applications from the same half-dozen broadcasters, and realize that nobody wants to touch that part of the issue, or even acknowledge that it is an important part of the LPFM fight.

It's even more surprising that the LPFM supporters have been so understated about the translator land-grab of the last few years. We can understand why the equipment manufacturers haven't said anything; the same products they'd love to sell to LPFM stations are already selling just fine to religious translators, after all. Where's the NFCB on this issue, though? And what of the trade magazines that all but ignore translators? (NERW wonders how many staffers at Broadcasting & Cable even know what a translator is...)

It's no great surprise to us to see the LPFM battle of 1999-2000 ending this way. We just wish all sides had been a little more honest about what was really at stake, instead of hiding behind the fraud of "interference concerns." Shame on you, Eddie Fritts. Shame on you, Mike Oxley. Shame on you, Bill Kennard. And shame on all of you would-be LPFMers who haven't spoken out loudly enough. It will be a long, long time before low-power broadcasting has another chance to become a legal local reality and not just a tool to be abused by big national religious broadcasters.

[Guess we need to add the usual disclaimer: NERW has nothing against religious broadcasting, per se. Our bias is against the way a handful of broadcasters have taken blatant advantage of an unintentional loophole in FCC rules to create nationwide networks of hundreds of low-powered stations explicitly forbidden to provide any local programming, and against the FCC's continued willful blindness to the monster it created when it allowed satellite-fed translators.]

That's it for this week; back next Friday with the usual update. See you then!

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