It’s been eight years since the FCC voted to establish LPFM, and in that time NPR has only seen its fortunes rise, with listenership and income rising in sharp contrast to the fortunes of the Clear-Channeled commercial radio industry. Yet, as Matthew Lasar reports in Ars Technica, the nation’s largest public radio network continues to trot out the beaten dead horse of interference in arguing that the Commission should not take steps to protect LPFM stations. NPR’s especially against the proposal that full-power stations that want to relocate transmitters should assist LPFM stations in making sure the low-power signals are not degraded in the change.
I covered this on Friday’s radioshow, too, and the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am in NPR. Despite many of the criticisms of NPR’s establishment-oriented news coverage and upper-middle-class demographic focus, there’s much to like about NPR and its programming. I am a daily listener because NPR’s news programming is better than anything on the commercial radio dial, and better than commercial TV news. That said, I don’t get all my news from NPR, and think it’s also vitally important to have community radio and great international programs like Democracy Now and Free Speech Radio News, both of which merit wider distribution and better funding.
Back in 2001 when I had a little Q&A with then NPR president Kevin Klose he maintained that the network was hewing to the interference concerns of the Western NPR affiliates, using translator stations to reach mountainous and isolated regions. He tried to express sympathy for the goals of LPFM, while also criticizing the FCC for how he believed it rushed LPFM through.
But we all learned the interference concerns were unfounded when the Congressionally mandated Mitre report was released. So why does NPR insist on opposing LPFM still?
The only answer that makes sense is that the network is behaving in a very Clear Channel/NAB way, opposing any competition, regardless of the potential competitor’s merits. This is nothing new, NPR joined up with the CPB back in the 70s to kill low-power Class D radio the first time around (see my chapter in the Radio Reader). NPR’s competition anxiety is a little different than Clear Channel’s in that now, as in the 1970s, it has a lot to do with CPB grants, which are still the lifesblood of most NPR affiliate stations. These grants have been shrinking, and increasingly are based on listener ratings. Especially in medium size markets, LPFMs can pose a real threat of listener erosion.
The bigger fear, I reckon, is that beyond just posing competition, NPR fears that some stations might actually have to give way to or assist LPFMs if they want to move tower locations or increase power.
Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced of NPR’s apparent fears and critical of their opposition to LPFM. I believe that public radio as a whole has more to gain from having additional noncommercial, community stations on the dial than it has to lose. In any event, NPR’s continued opposition of LPFM is short-sighted and unnecesary.
I am definitely considering halting my contributions to NPR-affiliated stations in protest of NPR’s stupid LPFM stance. I wish there were a way to make pledges to stations to continue support local programming without any of that money going to the network (maybe there is?). What do you think?