To gain an important political ally for his low-power FM radio plan, or at least neutralize an opponent, FCC Chairman William Kennard has convinced his colleagues to tweak the rules.
The changes, approved Sept. 22, are aimed at persuading National Public Radio to drop its opposition to low-power radio, which would create hundreds of noncommercial stations across the country with much smaller coverage areas than full-power stations.
Despite Kennard's efforts, NPR officials last week weren't ready to jump on board and pledged to continue to back industry efforts to curtail the new service until they are satisfied that adding hundreds of new stations won't turn the FM dial into a cacophonous buzz of interference.
"Our record on this issue is quite clear," NPR President Kevin Klose said last week. "Right now, we are continuing our legislative path."
NPR's board will decide its stand after the FCC releases a complete text of the changes.
Even more than NPR, the National Association of Broadcasters has bitterly opposed the creation of a low-power service. Kennard gave up trying to extend an olive branch to the commercial industry long ago.
But Kennard could steal a lot of thunder from the NAB in its fight to convince Capitol Hill to kill or roll back the new service if he could bring NPR on board. NPR's members face the same interference threat as for-profit stations. Plus, they have the added desire of protecting reading services for the blind, which roughly one-third of NPR's 270 stations provide on separate "sub-carrier" signals.
Under the new plan, low-power stations must be located at least four channels away from existing full-power stations that have reading services-the same protection full-power stations have enjoyed for years. Previously, the low-power plan would have allowed all micro stations to operate only three channels away from existing stations.
Also, the FCC said it would expedite interference complaints brought against low-power stations. To qualify for this so-called "rocket docket," a full power station must show that 1% of the potential listeners in its market have complained about low-power interference. The two stations must then make a good-faith effort to solve the problem.
If they can't, the agency has 90 days to settle the dispute. Current rules give the FCC an indefinite period of time to settle the dispute. And it can even turn it over to an administrative law judge, potentially delaying a decision even further.
The NAB supports legislation passed by the House and pending in the Senate that would bar the FCC from relaxing any interference protections except in nine pilot markets. Prospects for the Senate version are dicey, because Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) is fighting for his own FCC-friendly bill.
While still waiting for the FCC to release the exacting wording of the revisions, Klose said new protections for reading services go a long way in the right direction, but says listeners won't tolerate 90-plus days of fuzzy reception.
"I've never heard of a rocket that took 90 days to get into orbit," he said.