BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, Congress and the FCC crept closer to what many see as the cure for unhealthy consolidation in radio broadcasting: Low-power FM. I say "crept," because they started on the road to LPFM five years ago, and they're not there yet. In January of 2000, the FCC authorized the service, offering thousands of would-be broadcasters and schools and churches and many erstwhile radio pirates a chance to serve their communities. Low-power FM was this close, until the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio ascended Capitol Hill with test results showing that the low-power signal would interfere with existing FM stations. Then, Congress put on the brakes and pared the service down to just a few hundred stations. Here's how FCC Chairman Bill Kennard reacted five years ago.
WILLIAM KENNARD: Well, I'm very disappointed and, frankly, surprised that an organization like NPR, which has done so much to promote opportunities for Americans to be heard on the airwaves would join with commercial special interests in trying to kill this promising new service.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Flash forward five years, and it turns out that the current conservative FCC Chairman, Michael Powell, felt the same way about LPFM as the liberal Bill Kennard -- we need it. Powell said this at an FCC Forum Tuesday.
MICHAEL POWELL: I've been told on the phone this morning that Senator McCain will drop the LPFM bill this morning, which will provide new opportunity. So, we're off to a fast start in the new Congress, and I'm hopeful and excited, and we'll have our full support here at the commission behind trying to make that a reality.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A bill co-sponsored by John McCain seems likely to put LPFM back on the fast track - or will it? Media Maven Rick Karr was at the FCC Forum, and he joins me now. Hi, Rick.
RICK KARR: It's a pleasure to be here, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, let's start with some history. Signal interference. That's a legitimate concern, if there really is a chance of interference.
RICK KARR: Well, it depends on whose studies you believe. Part of what Congress did back in 2001, when it scaled back the low-power FM or LPFM program is it ordered a test from a company called the Mitre Corporation, which is a non-profit scientific testing company; does a lot of work for government agencies. The Mitre Corporation report came back and said really there is no fear of interference. Now, of course, at this point the NAB and NPR both say both say, no, we're still really concerned about this. We have our own tests that indicate otherwise. Really, though, I think most people in Washington who have been following this in Washington would say it depends on what you mean by "interference."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. So, you're saying NAB and NPR were thinking of a different kind of interference.
RICK KARR: Well, let's just go to some of the tape that I gathered at this FCC Forum last Tuesday. The first piece of tape is from a gentleman named Mr. Paul Billings, who's the general manager of WUVS-LP, which is in Muskegon, Michigan, which is a sort of urban music and community service station. He told this to the members of the FCC:
PAUL BILLINGS: When Arbitron came out, one of our friends from Clear Channel called me and said low-power FM is number one in our market. You're not going to hear that from Clear Channel, but if you check the ratings for Arbitron, Muskegon, Michigan, low-power FM is number one. Number one, over Clear Channel, all that. Number one. [APPLAUSE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, in that case, we're talking about interference with commercial broadcasters.
RICK KARR: Exactly. And there have also been some concerns that low-power FM stations are violating underwriting rules, and they're actually selling advertising.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they're not allowed to; they're supposed to be non-commercial.
RICK KARR: Well, they're supposed to follow the same rules that those of us in the public broadcasting world follow.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, let's move on to NPR, then. Its beef probably has something to do with audience as well.
RICK KARR: Explicitly, they're only worried about signal interference. Kevin Klose, the president of NPR, who I spoke with earlier this week, made it very clear that he is only concerned with signal interference. However, I spoke with a number of Capitol Hill staffers working closely on this issue, and what they're saying is it boils down to money, because of course in public radio, as in commercial radio, audience is money. There are only so many listeners like you in the audience, and you only have so much money that you're going to give to your local public or LPFM radio station, and in fact, there may be another sort of encroachment going on here that has something to do with money. This is another gentleman who addressed the FCC last Tuesday. His name is Michael Shay, and he is the manager of WRYR-LP, which is in Sherwood, Maryland, on the eastern shore. He said this:
MICHAEL SHAY: Now that we have a seat at the table, we'd like a slice of the pie. And that slice of the pie includes the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes 80 million dollars that I know of, that LPFM, who meets the mission of public broadcasting, that we actually are practicing diversity, we are bringing programs to the community.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you'll hear public radio broadcasters say that pie is none too big as it is. How dependent is public radio these days on the CPB?
RICK KARR: Certainly NPR itself is not that dependent. I mean, after the Republican Congress tried to zero out NPR, as they said, back in the 1990s, NPR moved aggressively to get Corporation for Public Broadcasting money out of the core of NPR's funding, but member stations receive a fair amount of money.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's turn to the McCain bill. What's in it? What makes it different than what came before? And, how will that allow many more low-power FM stations on to the air?
RICK KARR: Basically, what this has to do with is spacing between stations. What the FCC originally wanted is, essentially, two blank spaces between an already licensed broadcaster and a low-power FM station. NPR and the NAB said no, we think that there should be three blank spaces, and of course, in most urban areas, there are no places on the dial where there are a total of seven blank spaces in a row so that you can slot a low-power FM in there. When Congress stepped in, in 2001, they basically gave the NAB and NPR what they wanted. What the McCain bill would do is take us back to that two blank space standard which would allow a lot more stations to come on the air and would allow stations to start coming on line in urban areas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Congress has become a lot more activist since those days back in the '90s. It recently put a roadblock in front of the loosening of media ownership restrictions that Powell wanted to push through. Is this really, ultimately, about media consolidation in the end?
RICK KARR: Absolutely. Everybody who was at the FCC Forum last Tuesday mentioned notions of consolidated ownership and the fact that local radio for the most part in this country, if it's not dead already, especially in the commercial part of the dial, it's dying. LPFM is seen as the antidote to that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, all right. Rick, thank you very much.
RICK KARR: It's a pleasure, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rick Karr reports on media and technology, and you can read more of his thoughts on technopop.org.