LPFM, take two

McCain introduces bill to expand service; chances of passage seen slim

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) last week introduced legislation to pump new life into the FCC's low-power-radio effort. Passage is considered a long shot.

"Low-power FM radio will provide many communities with increased sources of news and perspectives in an otherwise increasingly consolidated medium," McCain said in a statement. "Last Congress, special-interest forces opposed to low-power FM radio, most notably the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio, mounted a successful behind-the-scenes campaign to kill low-power FM radio without a single debate on the Senate floor."

Technically, LPFM wasn't killed. But it was severely limited.

McCain's bill would reverse legislation that Congress passed last December as part of a larger spending measure. That bill, sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), limited low-power FM to nine markets in urban areas. Congress instructed the FCC to test for interference in those markets and report back. But low-power radio stations can be built in less-populated markets where they fit on the FM band at least four channels away from existing high-power stations.

That was enough to give hope to advocates of low-power FM.

"The FCC is going to be granting construction permits to the first 200 or so rural stations that can get on the air-that will be happening in the next month or two," said Michael Bracy, executive director of the Low-Power Radio Coalition. "There's such a demand for the service. We're going to see upwards of 500 to 600 rural stations getting on the air this year."

Although that doesn't help would-be stations in urban areas, Bracy doesn't think McCain's legislation will pass.

McCain introduced a similar bill last year that didn't get very far. Instead, Bracy is counting on a report coming back from the test markets that shows low-power FM stations don't interfere with existing stations. Then he and other grass-roots lobbyists can push Congress to let the FCC authorize a full LPFM service.

In addition to allowing the FCC to license low-power stations as it sees fit, McCain's bill also would give the agency authority to determine when low-power stations are interfering and what they should do to fix the problem. In a tangential provision, the bill also would require that the FCC "complete all rulemakings necessary to implement full-power stations' transition to digital broadcasting no later than Feb. 23, 2002."

Neither the FCC, which has changed hands since Congress passed the bill, nor the NAB had any comment.