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Low Power FM Opposed by NPR, Commercial Outlets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Think of the Low Power FM radio controversy--potentially the medium’s biggest revolution since the arrival of FM itself in the 1960s--as a packed dance floor. The way opponents describe it: The room would be so crowded you could barely hear the words of your partner or the sound of the music, or move to the beat without getting entangled in someone else’s feet.

That’s what has National Public Radio as well as commercial broadcasters, including major radio networks such as Clear Channel Communications and the National Assn. of Broadcasters, the chief trade group for radio and television, up in arms. Earlier this week, NPR reiterated its ongoing opposition to the plan.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 06, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 6, 2000 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Radio program’s outlet--An article in Friday’s Calendar incorrectly reported the outlet for National Public Radio’s “Performance Today.” It airs weekdays on KCSN-FM (88.5) in two parts, from 11 a.m. to noon and then from 1 to 2 p.m. The program no longer airs on KUSC-FM (91.5).

Designed by the Federal Communications Commission to provide a diversity of local voices in an era of radio consolidation, Low Power FM is set to begin May 30 in the first round of states, including California. That’s the date the FCC opens its application window to award low-power FM radio licenses to churches, schools, PTAs and a variety of local community groups.

In fundamental terms, LPFM--its acronym--would crowd more stations onto the dial. The larger commercial FM stations in the L.A. market currently have more elbow room, with sometimes nearly a full digit separating them (KBIG at 104.3 and KOST at 103.5), while the public radio outlets are already much closer. Having more stations would also impact the sound, since more signals bunched together would increase the potential of one radio station’s sound seeping over into another.

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While NPR, which is carried on 644 stations in the U.S,, reaching an audience of nearly 15 million each week, and the broadcasters’ association take similar stands in their fight with the FCC over Low Power FM--the groups have not formally joined forces. Still, they use the same buzzword: interference.

NPR President and Chief Executive Kevin Klose said by phone from Washington that the technical issues of interference impact public radio more than the larger commercial stations. “Our signals are ‘lightly processed’ to give us a wide dynamic range. We are not processed the way Top 40 stations are for loudness so that they can blast their signal, regardless of anybody nearby [on the radio dial].”

Klose cited NPR host Scott Simon’s recent interview with Cambodian author Loung Ung, who wrote “First They Killed My Father,” as an example of NPR’s soft range. “I was driving the New York State Thruway on a recent Saturday morning at 65 mph with semis rumbling past me at 75 [mph], and I could hear these two people sighing over the microphone, on my tiny little rental car radio.

“On the loud end,” he continued, “when we do a symphony on ‘Performance Today'--when you get the full clash of cymbals and the horn section coming in behind it--we present that with greater dynamic fullness. It’s a rich tone to give lots of variation within that sound. It’s as close to what it actually sounds like in the concert hall.

“And with LPFM, it would be like someone was talking in the seat next to you.”

With 90% of the nation’s public radio stations clustered in the so-called “reserve band"--from 87.9 to 91.9--NPR contends it is “uniquely vulnerable,” more so than commercial stations, which extend from 92.1 to 107.9.

In the near term, the impact of LPFM is less likely to be felt in major markets such as New York and Los Angeles. Klose suggests “there would probably be very few LPFM stations licensed in the major urban markets because there’s such crowding on the spectrum anyway.”

A spokesman for the FCC, when asked about Los Angeles, noted that in the first round of LPFM applications, dealing with 50- to 100-watt stations with a radius of 3.5 miles, “we do not expect to award any [LPFM licenses].” He added that the FCC has not yet determined whether 10-watt stations with a range of up to two miles would be approved here, or how soon. (By comparison, KCRW-FM is a 7,000-watt station.)

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For the most part, public radio here--classical music station KUSC-FM (91.5), which airs NPR’s “Performance Today”; news/talk station KPCC-FM (89.3) in Pasadena, which carries “Weekend Edition Saturday,” hosted by Simon; and jazz station KLON-FM (88.1) in Long Beach--say that they do not expect any fallout at their stations from the FCC’s plans.

At KCRW, Jennifer Ferro, assistant general manager, said: “Public radio stations have enough problems in a commercial radio market in Los Angeles without having to worry about micro-broadcasters stepping on our rather weak signal.”

Rene Engel, general manager of KCSN-FM (88.5), while noting that the issue may be moot here, points out that “it’s essential for us in public broadcasting to protect our right of way.” He noted that the best analogy on the issue is one he heard from Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who said “and I’m quoting him, ‘Other stations will be swerving into your lane.’ ”

An FCC spokesman declined to discuss specific points of contention, but on April 7, Chairman William Kennard said, “I continue to be willing to sit down with anyone, any time, anywhere to work through any technical questions or concerns.”

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Since then, Congress has begun weighing in on the issue. On April 13, with a 274-110 vote, the House of Representatives passed a bill that sharply restricted establishment of low-power neighborhood stations. With 80% of community stations eliminated from the process, the House said the FCC could proceed with the target date as long as protections to existing stations are maintained. Essentially this limits the FCC to a pilot test program studying signal interference.

On the day of House vote, Kennard called the interference issue “a red herring,” citing four reasons, among them the FCC’s pledge not to authorize low-power stations in communities where there could be existing stations, and the FCC’s commitment to protect special radio reading services that are broadcast within public radio signals.

“While it appears on the face to simply be about requiring the FCC to conduct more tests to protect existing broadcasters from interference, its practical effect is to set roadblocks and hurdles for the FCC, and for the development of low-power radio,” said Kennard.

Kennard noted that he was “particularly disappointed” that NPR joined commercial interests. “I can only wonder how an organization that excels in national programming could fear competition [from] these tiny stations operated by churches, schools, community groups and public safety agencies.”

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Meanwhile, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Commerce Committee, reportedly wants to craft his own bill, and a spokeswoman said hearings could come at any time.

David Wharton, the National Assn. of Broadcasters’ senior vice president for communications--noting that commercial broadcasting is “not against more voices"--said there is more diversity now than ever, with 3,500 radio stations added to the dial in the past 15 to 20 years.


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