Crushing the Little Guys
Scott Woolley, 09.06.04

In 1999 a wave of novice broadcasters tried to start several thousand new "low-power" FM radio stations, fledgling outfits that would fill gaps in the FM radio band. One group sought a license to air Baptist homilies in Connecticut, another for jazz in Oklahoma, another for Vietnamese talk shows in Minnesota.

Enter the National Association of Broadcasters. Radio lobbyists descended on the Federal Communications Commission, first persuading it to scale back the sweeping plans for new FM radio stations and then turning to Congress for still more relief. The NAB argued that even dinky nonprofits broadcasting at 100 watts or less would drown out existing FM radio stations. Allowing even the neutered FCC plan to proceed would "threaten to disintegrate the U.S. radio environment into chaos," the group said.

Congress, professing great concern at the alleged "chaos," leapt to the NAB's defense. It passed the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, gutting the plan the FCC had already scaled back and calling for years of further study.

In February a congressionally commissioned FCC report came out, debunking the notion that chaos loomed and saying the risk of interference from low-power signals is trivial. As for Congress' plans to study the matter further:Don't bother, the report advised. It called any other inquiries a waste of money. "It was just an exercise in raw political power on the part of the National Association of Broadcasters to squeeze out people who have little or no voice here in Congress," says Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). "It's no more complicated than that."

In June McCain and Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat, introduced a bill to overturn the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act and let more stations on the air. The NAB is violently opposed and has backed an amendment by Senator Conrad Burns, a Republican representing Montana, to spend $800,000 doing just what the last study recommended against: more studies.

Senator McCain assesses the chances that Congress will ever buck the broadcasters and let in more radio competitors this way: "Dim. Extremely dim."