Recently, approximately 200 people congregated on Capitol Hill to hear Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., announce she is introducing legislation to protect low-power FM radio stations from what she called the "encroachment" of larger commercial media.
Slaughter's legislation will be introduced to accompany the Local Community Radio Act of 2005, which was proposed in the Senate by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Both bills aim to ease restrictions on LPFM stations, particularly regarding LPFM licenses, which are required under Federal Communications Commission regulations.
According to the text of the Senate bill, the legislation is based in part on the premise that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 -- which eliminated restrictions governing the number of commercial radio stations one company could own -- has resulted in "increased ownership consolidation in the radio industry."
The FCC created LPFM radio service in 2000 for the use of "non-commercial educational entities and public safety and transportation organizations" only, according to the commission's Web site. No commercial entities or organizations with interests in other commercial media may apply for an LPFM license.
Almost immediately after the LPFM category was established, the FCC added restrictions to their licenses because commercial broadcasters complained that the low-power stations would create interference and therefore affect the quality of commercial programming. Despite the fact that the Senate bill calls such claims "unsubstantiated," commercial broadcasters -- though not opposed to the concept of LPFM radio itself -- nevertheless have raised concerns.
Edward O. Fritts, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, called for "needed interference protections" before such licenses should be issued in a statement issued last July.
"It's unfortunate that local radio listeners will be the unintended victims of the inevitable interference that would result from shoehorning more stations onto an already overcrowded radio dial," Fritts said in the same statement, which remains the current position of NAB.
The legislation comes at a time when media consolidation in the United States has become the norm. Clear Channel Communications, for example, currently owns more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide, according to its Web site.
Citadel Broadcasting Corp. in Las Vegas, another media conglomerate, currently operates approximately 247 radio stations in 45 domestic markets. The ability of companies to acquire such large number of stations -- sometimes several in one market -- is a result of the 1996 telecommunications act.
In this environment the number of LPFM radio stations has risen dramatically during the past five years, according to the Prometheus Radio Project in Philadelphia, an advocacy group dedicated to increasing the non-commercial presence on radio airwaves.
Hannah Sassaman, the project's programming director, told United Press International that LPFM radio was "successful" and estimated more than 600 low-power radio stations are operating in the United States today.
Sassaman said the purpose of LPFM radio is to "provide outlets for those who wouldn't have a voice with media consolidation" and attributed the growth of the stations to this purpose.
In order to comply with FCC rules, LPFM stations must operate with a maximum effective radiated power, or ERP, of 100 watts, which translates into a 3.5-mile radius of service area, according to the FCC Web site.
Whitney Shroyer, a disc jockey at a low-power radio station in Asheville, N.C., said he thinks current FCC regulations governing LPFM stations are too strict.
"We work with ridiculously low wattage, which prevents us from serving our demographic," Shroyer told UPI.
Shroyer's station, WPVM-LP, which calls itself "The Progressive Voice of the Mountains," broadcasts a mixture of nationally syndicated and local talk radio and music.
He said he favors the proposed legislation currently pending on Capitol Hill.
"The more freedom we have, the better we can serve our community," Shroyer said.
"LPFM is a stalwart example of localism, public service and the importance of non-commercial media to a vibrant democracy and a diverse culture," Slaughter wrote in a June 2005 letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin.
It is for this purpose, she told the meeting, that legislative action is needed on LPFM radio.
Though Slaughter's legislation has yet to be introduced, the Senate version of the bill remains in committee.
Renee Williams is an intern for UPI Science News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org