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2000-09-21

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As Members of the National Association of Broadcasters began their three day national conventional in San Francisco yesterday, activists from all over the country began descending on the city to protest the Association’s aggressive stance against Low Power FM (LPFM) or microradio, and to demand increased non-commercial, locally controlled, public interest media in this country. [includes rush transcript]

Under an FCC headed by William Kennard, the first African American FCC Chair, media activists had successfully lobbied the FCC to end it’s 22 year ban on microradio, despite intense opposition from the NAB and NPR.

The FCC began in its ban on LPFM in 1978 as a result of pressure from National Public Radio which wanted to consolidate its audience. LPFM activism has grown gradually since.

Earlier this year the FCC announced a new licensing plan that would effectively enable as many as 700 new low power community stations to take to the airwaves. While many LPFM activists feel that the plan does not go far enough, the NAB has aggressively opposed the law entirely, and has used its influence in Congress to see a Bill passed in the House that squashes the FCC plan, and if passed by the Senate, would reduce the number of stations nationally from 700 to 70.

The NAB claims that microradio interferes with their business. With us today are three guests who believe that the NAB interferes with democracy.

Guests:

  • Robert Perry, with the Center for Constitutional Rights and is a lawyer representing LPFM activists.
  • Pete Tridish, with the Prometheus Radio Project in Philadelphia. He is in Berkeley this weekend for the NAB protests.
  • Janine Jackson, with FAIR.

Related link:

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:

As members of the National Association of Broadcasters began their three-day national convention in San Francisco yesterday, activists from around the country began descending on the city to protest the association’s aggressive stance against low-power FM or micro radio and to demand increased noncommercial, locally controlled public-interest media in this country. Under an FCC headed by William Kennard, the first African American FCC Chair, media activists had successfully lobbied to end its twenty-two-year ban on micro radio, despite intense opposition from the NAB and NPR, National Public Radio. The FCC began its ban on LPFM in 1978 as a result of pressure from NPR, which wanted to consolidate its audience. LPFM activism has grown gradually since.

Earlier this year, the FCC announced a new licensing plan that would effectively enable as many as 700 new low-power community stations to take to the airwaves. While many activists feel the plan does not go far enough, the NAB aggressively opposed the law entirely and used its influence in Congress to see a bill passed in the House that squashed the FCC plan, and if passed by the Senate, would reduce the number stations nationally from 700 to seventy. The NAB says the micro radio interferes with business. Activists say and our guests today say the NAB interferes with democracy.

We tried to get the NAB on today, the FCC and NPR. We were not successful, but we did get on Robert Perry, who joins us in the studio, from the Center for Constitutional Rights, a lawyer representing LPFM activists. Welcome to Democracy Now! Robert Perry.

ROBERT PERRY:

Hi.

AMY GOODMAN:

Let’s start off by telling us what low-power FM is.

ROBERT PERRY:

Low-power FM is a — it’s a form of radio that in which stations broadcast, as it says, at low power. The FCC has authorized two classes of low-power stations. One will operate at 100 watts of power with a coverage area, I believe, of 3.5 miles, and the second will operate at ten watts of power with a much smaller coverage area.

AMY GOODMAN:

Pete Tridish joins us on the radio from Philadelphia. He is with the Prometheus Radio Project there, but he’s out in California right now for the NAB protests. Tell us what the Prometheus Radio Project is, and what it has to do with NPR?

PETE TRIDISH:

Well, The Prometheus Radio Project emerged from folks in the micro radio movement who were working on getting the low-power FM service started. And we have over the years been advocating for, not only for low-power FM, but also for media democracy in general. And at this point, you know, now that we got the service passed by the FCC, we’re working to protect it from the various ravages inflicted upon it by Congress, and eventually to expand it to make it — to make room for more stations on the dial.

AMY GOODMAN:

You were shut down by the FCC?

PETE TRIDISH:

I was part of a collective before Prometheus existed. I was part of the Radio Mutiny Collective in Philadelphia, which was an unlicensed radio station.

AMY GOODMAN:

And what were you trying to do? How did you broadcast?

PETE TRIDISH:

Well, we broadcast out of a friend’s house, and we broadcast seven nights a week with about sixty programmers. And we basically saw our unlicensed broadcast as an act of civil disobedience against the way that the media is owned.

AMY GOODMAN:

What were you broadcasting?

PETE TRIDISH:

Oh, it was everything, from, you know, Klezmer to hip-hop to, you know, local activists doing public affairs shows. And it was real exciting, because there’s really nothing like a neighborhood radio station to, you know, sort of form the nexus of, you know, new ways of creating local democracy.

AMY GOODMAN:

So what is NPR’s role in all this?

PETE TRIDISH:

Well, NPR’s role is unfortunately really shameful. And I’d like to differentiate between all of NPR, because there are lots of folks at NPR that actually support this and a sort of thin layer of imperious bean counters at the top of NPR who feel very threatened by the possibility of low-power radio. NPR has been pushing stations across the country to take its sort of nationally syndicated programming and eliminate their local content. And as a result, low-power radio starts to look like more of a competitive threat, because, you know, there really is a lack of local programming on these NPR affiliates.

So they have never had the guts to admit their real policy objectives about this. They’ve always couched their opposition to low-power FM in terms of technical issues. Mostly they claim that there are certain kinds of interference that can be caused. The truth of the matter is that they lost on the technical merits of their argument before the bodies that were most able to judge them, which is, you know, the engineering staff of the FCC. Actually, they were highly successful. They’ve managed to go from a service that was proven to be able to have perhaps 2,000 stations down to what we have, which is around 700.

AMY GOODMAN:

Saying that micro radio stations cause interference in the signal.

PETE TRIDISH:

Right. And now that, you know, that wasn’t enough for them, they want to further reduce the service to make it pretty much meaningless. So what they’ve really been looking for is they’re looking for a venue to present their arguments, where — you know, where the technical merits of their arguments don’t matter, but, you know, the normal workings of money and power do. And so, they chose the United States Congress an appropriate venue for that sort of argument.

AMY GOODMAN:

Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, based here in New York, but you, too, are in Berkeley right now for the NAB protests. Can you put this in a larger media context?

JANINE JACKSON:

Well, yes. It’s important to understand the NAB and the large corporate media’s objection to low-power radio in a context of, really, their attempts — and since the NAB has been in existence, they’ve always been about thwarting any alternatives to the model of broadcasting that they promote. And that’s the commercial, advertising-driven model. You know, the NAB really see the airwaves not so much as a public resource to be shared, the way we might, but as a private preserve where they have to protect their investment value.

And went it comes to low power, Pete Tridish is absolutely right. The problem is that low-power radio is often providing just the kind of local, locally focused issue news that commercial radio has pretty much given up on. The FCC deregulated radio in 1980 and said that they no longer had to provide news and public affairs. And a lot of stations jumped right on that, to the point where now most of the top, in most of the top 75 markets, the radio stations don’t even do their own news. They outsource it to another entity.

And the NAB, rather than trying to curtail that kind of activity, one of the panels at the NAB conference here in San Francisco was originally titled “How to Sound Live and Local, Even When You’re Not.” So, you know, the problem is the NAB has always been about thwarting any kind of alternative model of broadcasting.

AMY GOODMAN:

We’re talking Dead Man Talking.

JANINE JACKSON:

I’m in a payphone.

AMY GOODMAN:

Ah-ha.

JANINE JACKSON:

But I’m — well, anyway. Us activists are living rough out here. But, yeah, the NAB has always been about thwarting any kind of model of broadcasting that might put the public interest more central.

AMY GOODMAN:

Robert Perry with the Center for Constitutional Rights, what are the legal issues here? And is the battle over in Congress right now? Are they even going to pass seventy?

ROBERT PERRY:

Well, I don’t — I can’t tell you what’s going to happen with the Senate bill, but the — as you probably know, the House passed a bill that would significantly water down the FCC’s already watered-down low-power radio proposal.

AMY GOODMAN:

Foing from 700 lower-power stations to seventy.

ROBERT PERRY:

To seventy, yeah. And a companion bill has been introduced in the Senate, I believe as a rider to an appropriation bill. The NAB has also challenged the FCC’s low-power report in order, in the — by filing a lawsuit in the District of Columbia — United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And that case has already been briefed, and the oral arguments will be held in late November.

I might add that the Center for Constitutional Rights has also filed a lawsuit that’s been consolidated with that lawsuit on behalf of a former member of Steal this Radio, the unlicensed station that formerly operated on the Lower East Side, Greg Ruggiero, and we’re challenging the FCC’s decision to disqualify, automatically disqualify, from holding LPFM licenses or participating as an officer or director of a licensed LPFM station anyone who refused to cease unlicensed operations, after being told to do so by the FCC.

Now, Pete Tridish mentioned a few minutes ago that a lot of these unlicensed operations were acts of civil disobedience, challenging what people felt was an unconstitutional rule, the FCC’s former ban on low-power radio. And the analogy has been made to the civil rights demonstrations in the ’50s and ’60s. Those people broke the law in order to vindicate their First Amendment rights. Rosa Parks, for example, got on — sat in the front of the bus. What the FCC has done is analogous to eliminating discrimination in the South, but then saying that Rosa Parks can’t sit in the front of the bus, because she broke the law in the past.

AMY GOODMAN:

So she’s the one who can’t sit, but other people can.

ROBERT PERRY: Yeah, so these unlicensed stations, the courageous unlicensed stations that paved the way, that forced the FCC to adopt low-power radio, are essentially shut out of licenses.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, all of you are up against some powerful foes. We’re just talking to Chuck Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity, who put out this report on media money, which is in Columbia Journalism Review. And he says no media organization spends more money lobbying or has more people covering Washington than the NAB, which has spent more than $19 million to persuade government officials since 1996. The NAB President, Eddie Fritts, was a college classmate and close friend of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and on occasion this relationship has been immensely helpful to the broadcasters. There are twenty registered lobbyists at the NAB, seven of whom came from congressional staffs, the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission. And until recently their ranks include Kimberly Tauzin, the daughter of Billy Tauzin, who is the Louisiana Congress member who takes, I guess, more junkets from the communications industry than anyone else. Pete Tridish, you’re up against a lot.

PETE TRIDISH:

We sure are. But it’s also exciting, because this is a sort of a new moment for media activism. You know, I made my way all the way out here because, you know, for a long time, you know, the paradigm of trying to affect the media environment of this country has had more to do with, oh, writing letters to the FCC, doing studies and so on. And certainly some people have taken more steps, but with the emergence of low-power radio and with these demonstrations here, we’re seeing a sort of a new level of activism, where people see media concentration of ownership, the lack of localism in media, as an issue in and of itself, not just a side issue.

And we’re really looking forward to building a larger movement that can confront these issues, because they really — in some ways, they seem a little abstract, but they really go the heart of every other issue that we fight, because the media has so much say over the process of shaping public opinion and effecting our public policy. And as long as activists have to pull some crazy media stunt or something to get five seconds on the air to express their views, as opposed to the — you know, as opposed to the pundits that, you know, go every night up on Nightline, there’s never going to be a balanced debate about these public policy issues.

AMY GOODMAN:

Can you tell us about the schedule, Janine Jackson, in these few days outside of the NAB conference? And are you planning to get inside? And how many people do you expect in San Francisco?

JANINE JACKSON:

Well, you know, if you talk to some of the organizers, they put it in the thousands. Some people are less hopeful. But we do expect it to be one of the largest-scale demonstrations around media issues that we have seen. So it’s a little unclear how many people are making their way out to San Francisco. We do know that thousands and thousands of people are following this issue from wherever they are.

There’s going to be a series of teach-ins and music concerts. There’s going to be a press conference this morning at 8:30 a.m. outside the Moscone Center. There’s also going to be some workshops on how to build and operate a micro power station.

We have — we did send a letter to the NAB saying that we would love to come inside and address — you know, let them know what we’re out in the street shouting about. We’ve got a tentative response from them that some people might — that they might let us in to do that. We’re not quite sure — you know, we’ll believe that when we see it. But we have made the attempt to talk directly to the members.

And then, on Saturday, there’s going t be a big rally and a march starting at 4:00 p.m. The rally’s going to go from UN Plaza to Union Square, where there’s going to be a big independent musicians’ concert. So folks can find out exactly what’s going on from Media Alliance’s website that they’ve set up specially for the protests, which is www.mediademocracynow.org.

AMY GOODMAN:

I’m looking at the postcard for the protests, Going Beyond Low-Power FM, Protesting Squashing Grassroots Media Efforts, Putting Out the Trash Called Commercial Radio and TV, and even pushing through the overall Telecommunications Act of ’96, which, it says, legalized media monopolies, creating the Gap and Starbucks of the airwaves. Pete Tridish?

PETE TRIDISH:

Uh-huh. It’s — and one other event is that on Saturday, there is going to be initiation of a hopefully short campaign against NPR. NPR unfortunately has been the linchpin of the opposition to low-power FM. And we are going to hold a press conference outside of their board meeting, which strangely enough is in the same hotel as everything else that the National Association of Broadcasters is doing. And we’re going to be calling on subscribers and listeners to NPR to hold back on their pledges until they change their policy on this issue. You know, we really hate to, you know, target Public Radio in this way, but, again, we just — we don’t see any other way to get them to stop blockading low-power radio at this point.

AMY GOODMAN:

Well, I want to thank you all very much for being with us: Pete Tridish of Prometheus Radio Project in Philadelphia, Janine Jackson with Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Robert Perry with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a lawyer representing LPFM activists.

Again, we did invite on the FCC, NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters, and NPR, and did not have any luck in all of those cases. That website, for more information on these protests, www.mediademocracynow.org.

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