Monday Madness: NPR on the Laws of Physics

I just got an email from Jeff Shaw, my friend back in Davis who I got to know because he is the station manager for KDRT LP-FM, a low-power community radio station where I got my start on the air.

There’s been trouble brewing for quite a while about the status of low-power fm stations, which are currently considered second-class citizens next to full-power stations. A full-power commercial station can just up and sit on an LPFM station and take its spot on the radio dial if it feels like it. KDRT was at risk for being run out of town by a station called KMJE that was going to move close enough to Davis to interfere with KDRT’s signal – they are both 101.5 fm. It didn’t matter that KMJE was the one moving, KDRT would have had to shut down or be legally an “encroacher.” Fortunately, there has been such an upwelling of support for Davis’s community station that KMJE realized that they were about to piss off the new market they were trying to reach, and has backed off with intent to negotiate KDRTs continued existence. But not every LPFM station will be that fortunate.

Fortunately, the FCC is cluing into the inequities involved, and the value that small local stations have for their communities, and is looking to change the rules to give LPFM stations more security. Many media reform groups such as Prometheus Radio and The Future of Music endorse this plan, but they have one big obstacle, one enemy, that will stop at nothing to prevent LPFM stations from having a means to prevent being overrun by bigger stations that just feel like doing it. Who, might you ask? Is it the conglomeromegacommercial stations? An FCC dissenter? Rush Limbaugh?

No, it’s NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO.

Oh, they don’t just think that the FCC shouldn’t decide in favor of the low-power community stations, they claim that they have the laws of physics on their side. What? Oh get ready for some Monday Madness!

MADNESS

That’s right, you heard me. NPR is actually claiming that the LAWS OF PHYSICS are against granting LPFM stations the right not to be encroached on by larger stations. How? Well, here’s the article Jeff sent me: NPR’s war on Low Power FM: the laws of physics vs politics.

National Public Radio continues to move aggressively against Federal Communications Commission proposals that would, if not allow nonprofits to build more Low Power FM stations (LPFM), at least let existing ones survive the intrusion of new full power neighbors. NPR is quite plain about the matter in its FCC filings: it stands opposed to the Low Power exceptions, even though they might help keep FM offerings diverse. NPR charges that the FCC is putting feel-good policies ahead of the laws of physics.

“The laws of physics have not changed, and a system of full power broadcast stations serves many more listeners with less interference compared to low power broadcasting,” NPR told the FCC this month. “While LPFM stations may advance the interests of localism and diversity, the Commission cannot assume that LPFM is inherently better than full power service.”

The FCC is not assuming that LPFM is inherently better than full-power stations, it is saying that LPFM stations should have the right to continue to operate without large stations squashing them like bugs when they feel like it. Apparently, according to NPR, treating others like equals means treating one better than the other. Still, there’s a bit of history involved, and NPR has been fighting against community radio for some time, so have a read and I’ll leave you with a few thoughts at the end….

NPR opposes proposals to strengthen rules allowing LPFMs to obtain channel interference waivers when an “encroaching” full power station arrives on the scene. And the broadcaster decidedly dislikes measures that would require new full power signals to offer technical and even financial help to an LPFM that they’ve suddenly squatted on (or squatted next to).

This is a serious issue, because over the last decade the NPR service has expanded from 635 to 800 affiliated stations. Public radio’s stance on this puts it at odds with practically every media reform group in the country. But first, let’s recap the history of this bitter struggle, which goes back almost a decade.

A victory deferred

After years of highly-publicized battles between pirate radio stations and the FCC, agency Chair William Kennard’s Commission in 2000 set up some rules to establish two classes of LFPMs: an LP100 class with a maximum of 100 watts of power and an LP10 class with a limit of ten watts. License applicants for this new service had to honor various limits: nonprofit status and a “second adjacent” rule which meant that an LPFM could not set itself up within two channel notches of a full power station.

The FCC established that restraint in defiance of National Public Radio and the National Association of Broadcasters. Both entities demanded that a three notch No Man’s Land be thrown up around a full power signal. NPR pursued this goal with particular vigor, going so far as to suggest that the FCC disregarded laboratory tests that showed that LPFM stations without third adjacent restrictions would interfere with its member stations. Nonetheless, the agency stood these accusations down. It concluded that “imposition of a third-adjacent channel separation requirement would restrict unnecessarily the number of LPFM stations that could be authorized.”

So the big guys raised hell and asked Congress to stomp the FCC’s 2000 Order. Capitol Hill complied with a rider to a District of Columbia appropriations bill that instructed the FCC to put that third adjacent rule in there, despite the FCC’s own conclusions.

This was a big setback for LPFM, because it meant that significantly fewer such stations could be licensed in more densely-populated areas. As the FCC later conceded, various “otherwise technically grantable applications” became “short spaced,” prompting “the eventual dismissal of those applications.” The agency subsequently canceled 17 licenses and almost 100 construction permits “for failure of the holder to satisfy certain procedural and/or technical requirements.”

The DC Congressional rider did contain one silver lining. It authorized the FCC to commission an engineering study on the third adjacent problem, which the government did. The wheels of agency process moved slowly, but they moved. A little over two years later the Mitre Corporation submitted a report on the second/third adjacent problem, from which the FCC once again drew the conclusion that the third adjacent rule was not necessary.

Then, on December 11th of last year, the FCC enacted an Order and Proposed Rulemaking asking Congress to permit it to re-establish that second adjacent guideline. Mike Doyle (D-PA) in the House has sponsored such a bill, as has Maria Cantwell (D-WA) in the Senate.

While we wait for Congress . . .

The Commission’s December 11th Order also asked for comment on other proposals to help keep afloat the estimated 809 LPFMs broadcasting in the United States. These include more firmly establishing procedures for second adjacent waivers. At present, if a new full power station shows up too close to an LPFM, agency practice has been to consider a waiver if the smaller signal suddenly finds itself afoul of the second adjacent limit. The FCC now wants to turn that occasional practice into a rule, but it also wants guidance on under what circumstances it should grant such leeway. And the Commission wants public wisdom on whether its waiver procedures should be expanded to first and even co-adjacent situations.

Second (and NPR truly hates this idea), the FCC wants to know if the “encroaching” full-service station should be required to offer technical assistance and even financial help to an LPFM that can demonstrate full power interference. This might include paying for filtering technology and other interference aides. And the agency thinks that a full power station should give an LPFM advance notice if the former anticipates interference with the latter.

“It should also be required to cooperate in good faith with the LPFM station in developing the best technical approach,” the Commission contends, “including a possible LPFM site relocation, to ameliorate the interference and/or displacement impact of its proposal.” In addition, the FCC proposes to raise standards for the kinds of LPFMs that get this sort of help, and seems to be leaning towards codifying these new policies only for stations that provide eight hours of local programming on a daily basis.

Finally, the FCC proposes to use contouring methodology to license new LPFM stations. Contour measurement is a more flexible way of assessing the possible interference of a broadcast signal. It takes into account mountainous and watery areas, therefore offering station applicants a wider range of “new licensing opportunities,” as the FCC puts it.

Defense and offense

On April 7th, a medium-sized platoon of public interest groups and radio stations filed a 23-page statement on behalf of these proposals. They included the usual suspects: Prometheus Radio, Free Press, Benton, Future of Music, and Reclaim the Media, plus quite a few parties you don’t come across very often, such as the Forest Hills School District of Cincinnati, Ohio. These 46 groups enthusiastically endorsed the FCC’s suggestions.

“Low power radio stations are governed and operated by community based organizations with limited resources,” they wrote. “It is only fair, then, that full-power stations that choose to move into the low power radio’s community must provide technical and financial assistance to assist the low power station in resolving interference or in its move to a new channel.”

In addition, the filing took on the delicate issue of FM translators, which NPR affiliated stations rely on heavily to expand their audience reach. Prometheus wants to limit the number of translators. No entity, Prometheus et al says , should be able to own more than ten translators in the biggest 303 Arbitron measured markets “on a basis that is primary to an LPFM station that pledges to provide local originated programming.” In addition, LPFMs should not be able to convert to translators.

Needless to say, NPR sees these matters very differently, and was not afraid to be blunt about its perspective in its filing, submitted the same day as Prometheus. When Congress created the Low Power FM service, NPR’s comment argues, it intended these stations to broadcast “where full power stations could not.” Thus the Commission should understand LPFM stations as “secondary to full power stations,” NPR writes.

From this point of departure, practically everything that the FCC recommended in its December 2007 Order becomes illegitimate in NPR’s eyes, ignoring “longstanding policy determination that full power service is the most efficient use of broadcast spectrum.” If an LPFM wants a second adjacent waiver, it must first “resolve all actual interference complaints,” NPR insists, and prove that “other factors” have not caused the problem. But it should get no help from the encroaching full power station in question: “The Commission has no place demanding that one NCE [Non-Commercial Educational] station reallocate its scarce resources to another, unrelated one, no matter how deserving the Commission believes the latter to be.”

And as for notifying an LPFM of impending signal interference, NPR says that’s not an All Things Considered broadcasters’ job. “If the Commission perceives a special need to alert LPFM stations to potentially significant Commission actions or provide other accommodation, the Commission itself should take on those tasks.” In a more recent filing, submitted to the FCC on April 21st, NPR also opposed the ten translator limit.

In a sense, NPR has traveled full circle on this matter. In 2000 it protested imagined signal interference from LPFMs. Now it insists that real interference from its affiliates’ signals should be someone else’s problem.

In its FCC comments, National Public Radio claims that it “continues to support the LPFM service and the Commission’s efforts to ensure that it remain true to its original ideal.” But a detailed examination of public radio’s stance on LPFM will lead some to a different impression. “To the extent the Commission is motivated by the desire to prevent the loss of LPFM stations,” NPR writes in the same statement, “we also regret the community’s loss of a valued public service, but risk is inherent in the secondary nature of the LPFM service.”

Perhaps, then, NPR sees LPFM as a lesser species that, with time, will be driven to deserved extinction. That is, if the Federal Communications Commission does not enact rules that thwart the survival of the fittest.

Let me repeat part of this for clarity, NPR said it “continues to support the LPFM service and the Commission’s efforts to ensure that it remain true to its original ideal.”

Madness. Pure Monday Madness. The original ideal of LPFM did not involve bigger stations encroaching on LPFM stations so easily. The time period it takes to file to move a big commercial station’s signal tower was cut down from a couple years to a few measly months – which is how KDRT got in danger in the first place. KMJE saw that it could just file an application and move in less than a year’s time and put KDRT out of commission. NPR would like to do the same if it feels like it.

Well let me tell you what. The original ideal for the U.S.A. was to disallow women the right to vote, and allow black people to be kept as slaves. Why don’t we go back to that original ideal, hmm? Because we figured out it was wrong. The ideals of freedom and democracy came into conflict with the pseudo-ideals of white male [landowner] supremacy and one of them had to go.

Similarly, the ideal of allowing citizens to have their own voice with LPFM stations has come into conflict with the pseudo-ideal that LPFM stations must remain second-class citizens to full power stations.

“To the extent the Commission is motivated by the desire to prevent the loss of LPFM stations,” NPR writes in the same statement, “we also regret the community’s loss of a valued public service, but risk is inherent in the secondary nature of the LPFM service.”

We regret the community’s loss of a valued potential vote, but disallowing suffrage is inherent in the secondary nature of [insert disenfranchised group].

Grow up, National Public Radio. What kind of political crap is this? No seriously, just because the secondary nature of LPFM convenes you it doesn’t give you the right to prevent those stations from existing, or challenging you (or any of the big commercial outfits who you’re supposed to be different from). If you think about it, you’ll realize that any law in this case is arbitrary by itself – what if it was instead true that LPFM stations had all the rights, and full-power NPR and commercial stations had to dance around the small stations instead? Couldn’t the LPFM stations justify keeping you down because of your “secondary nature” which was decided by some person or body of people at some point in the past? They’re making it sound like their values are the only ones that are justifiable.

NPR is trying to reify their beliefs – make it sound like their political position is a mere consequence of natural law. I mean, what Madness is their claim about the laws of physics being on their side?

“The laws of physics have not changed, and a system of full power broadcast stations serves many more listeners with less interference compared to low power broadcasting.”

Yeah, we remember the last time NPR invoked the laws of physics. Early on in the history of LPFM, they were trying to prevent LPFM stations from broadcasting from within three channels of commercial signals, which was unreasonable, because at a mere two channels away, LPFM stations would not interfere with high-power stations. What this channel issue means is that by requiring a greater distance on the FM dial to be between an LPFM station and a full power station, it would leave fewer open spots for stations to exist. NPR was flat-out-wrong then, claiming that third adjacent channel distance was necessary to prevent interference. We know today that second adjacent channel distance is enough to prevent interference, and this latest physics-based claim is equally Maddening.

Full power radio stations can reach more individual people than any single LPFM station can. A network of local LPFM stations can also reach a lot of people, but as LPFM is Low Power FM – it will eventually cut out when you go for enough. In Davis, KDRT would cut out just beyond city limits. But it’s a radio station focused on Davis. Any NPR station that might broadcast in the area would not be focused on Davis at all – but be content from outside, with little connection to the local residents. Sure you’ve got national news, and LPFM stations can carry that too, KDRT does.

It’s like McDonalds. Sure, there’s a McDonalds on every freaking corner, and yes, this reaches more people than local eateries. But McDonalds is going to be the same crap everywhere you go without fail. What if McDonalds could literally force out local mom-and-pop restaurants by rule of law rather than fair competition?

I’m sure NPR would cover that story.

National Public Radio does not want competition. It seems so surprising that a network of stations that tries to bring other voices, good information, news, science, and more to this country, is doing what it can to prevent others from realizing their own radio voices. In all seriousness, if you want to reach everyone, pick up one of those Satellite Radio services and leave the traditional radio behind. Or get on the iPod mp3/podcast bandwagon and forget that radio even exists – they leave am/fm antennas off of iPods for a reason, ya know.

But if you support giving people the ability to have control of their own local media, and offer programming that they want, you should support LPFM. For many people this will not affect your life, for some it will improve it. The only people it will really affect negatively are the people trying to offer bland, repetitive programming at the expense of everything else.

Dang, and I still listen to some commercial stations – NPR is making me sound like a media anarchist, this is so Maddening.

What to do? Well, the FCC has a clear goal and it is not likely that they will listen to this shrill call for Madness. But if you support media democracy, you could take a moment to complain to NPR directly:

General Phone Numbers:

 

NPR Staff Directory

(202) 513-2000

Listener Services

(202) 513-3232

Corporate Sponsorship

(202) 513-2093

NPR Foundation

(202) 513-2073

Main Fax

(202) 513-3329

Media Relations:

 

Phone Number

(202) 513-2300

And here are their press contacts, for you media types:

Andi Sporkin
VP for Communications
(202) 513-2300
Emily Lenzner
Director of Media Relations
(202) 513-2300
Leah Yoon
Sr. Manager, Media Relations
(202) 513-2300
Anna Christopher
Manager, Media Relations
(202) 513-2300

I will call them this week, I made a deal with Ariela – if I chew them out she’ll call a couple other companies she’s been stewing over. I hope you’ll join me if you have a moment of free time!

Low Power community radio gave me an opportunity to get behind a microphone and try out my radio voice. As a result, I discovered that I love it, want to keep doing it, and someday I hope I can get paid to do it, and have it heard by a wide audience. But I will never forget the leg up that LPFM provided me and provides many other people. Have you ever tried to start a show on any other kind of station? Heck, when I got to Madison, I called up the local NPR affiliate, Wisconsin Public Radio, and asked them about starting a show – is it possible to get on the air, how would I apply, etc. And they told me “Um, we don’t do that.” No, you don’t, and that’s part of the problem.

So some day, I hope I do get on some bigger stations, but my support for LPFM will be unwavering. I may have pulled up my roots when I left Davis, but my roots are still firmly placed in LPFM stations – heck, if I ever had a big show, I would find some way to allow LPFM stations to carry it for free.

I thought about removing Science Friday (an NPR show) from my podcast list on the right until this blows over, but it’s not Ira Flatow’s fault. But I wonder what he thinks about NPRs claim about the laws of physics, as a science journalist?

I used to have a fairly high opinion of NPR, but this latest bit of Madness is seriously testing my patience. The Laws of Physics don’t change, and therefore whenever you stand in the way of the rights of people to control their own destinies, you’re bound to lose, and be made fun of on someone’s blog. And if I hear about more Media Madness that is perfectly fit for a Monday, you’ll find it right here. Thanks for reading, and have a great week.

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Karl Haro von Mogel

Karl Haro von Mogel serves as BFI’s Director of Science and Media and as Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. He has a PhD in Plant Breeding and Plant Genetics from UW-Madison with a minor in Life Sciences Communication. He is currently a Postdoctoral Scholar researching citrus genetics at UC Riverside.

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