Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Kill Community Radio

The Mr. Smith in question is Gordon Smith, who is persuading his former colleagues to use a rolling series of secret holds to keep a bill off the floor that would create thousands of new hyper-local community radio stations.
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Surely most of you are familiar with the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- that heartwarming classic where Jimmy Stewart exploits arcane Senate procedure to challenge political corruption and shady inside deals.

There's a sequel playing out now in D.C., with a real-life Mr. Smith, but it's not the same kind of feel-good story. Let's call it: Mr. Smith Stayed in Washington -- And Now He's Killing Community Radio.

The Mr. Smith in question is Gordon Smith, the former Republican senator from Oregon turned lobbyist-in-chief at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), one of the Capitol's most entrenched and powerful lobbies.

In the original Mr. Smith, Stewart launched a filibuster to expose the smear campaign being waged against him by a corrupt political machine. In this unfortunate follow-up, Mr. Smith is persuading his former colleagues to use a rolling series of secret holds to keep a bill off the floor that would create thousands of new hyper-local community radio stations.

(Almost) Everyone Loves Community Radio

The Local Community Radio Act (S. 592) would open up more of the radio dial for new Low Power FM (LPFM) stations -- small-wattage, noncommercial outlets with a range of just a few miles. There are already 800 LPFM stations on the air in mostly rural areas across the country, providing community news, local music, multilingual programming, religious broadcasting, and educational efforts otherwise largely absent from the FM dial. Emergency responders have praised LPFM stations for helping save lives in disasters; they're easy to keep on the air, and locals who run them know where to go for shelter when a tornado comes through.

But there aren't more LPFM stations around because the NAB convinced Congress to pass a bill years ago limiting where they could be made available. The big broadcasters claimed that LPFMs would interfere with their signals. But a multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded study at the FCC proved that such claims were bunk. And S. 592 — and its companion H.R. 1147, which already sailed through the House, were written to lift the unreasonable restrictions.

This bill enjoys remarkably broad bipartisan support. It's co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and has been endorsed by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul. It's supported by strange bedfellows ranging from Free Press and Consumers Union to the Christian Coalition and the National Association of Evangelicals, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the Mississippi Emergency Management Authority and the libertarians at Reason magazine.

How a Bill Doesn't Become a Law

There's no question S. 592 would pass a vote, and there's no reason not to add it to the list of items approved by "unanimous consent" like post office names and setting aside land for Boy Scout camps.

Well, there is one reason: Someone keeps holding up the bill.

I say "someone" because these holds are secret, and whoever's doing it keeps lifting their hold after a few days once they've been fingered or before they'd have to go public with their opposition to bringing more local voices to their state's airwaves. But there's always another senator willing to secretly stall things a bit longer. And no one knows how to take advantage of the Senate's obscured and antiquated process than an old senator like Mr. Smith.

The NAB's lobbyists are still spreading the same long-debunked falsehoods about "interference," even though what they're really afraid of is that their shrinking audience will be drawn away by truly local alternatives to the vast wastelands of commercial radio.

Since they've lost on the argument about LPFM on its merits, and because local community radio is so popular, they're resorting to backroom trickery to try to run out the clock on this bill until the Senate adjourns. And that would mean starting all over from square one in the next Congress.

Standing Up to Mr. Smith

This story is not without its heroes, too -- namely the band of tireless and tirelessly creative activists at the Prometheus Radio Project. This amazing group helps local communities navigate the complicated bureaucracy at the FCC and then literally build local radio stations from the ground up.

But over the years, they've had to also become savvy Washington operators, building diverse political coalitions, reaching across the aisle, and getting in the weeds with engineers and lawyers. And they've offered numerous compromises to address lingering industry concerns.

"Over the 111th Congress, community radio advocates worked with Congress to add nine changes to the Local Community Radio Act, all suggested by LPFM critics," explains Pete Tridish, one of Prometheus' founders and longtime organizers:

But the NAB insists that every demand they've made be met before they stop asking senators to block passage of the bill. They want to force the FCC to use an old, archaic way of finding spots for LPFM stations that no other radio broadcasters are required to use anymore for licensing. If the FCC were forced to use this method of licensing LPFM, there'd be no room for more LPFMs anywhere but unpopulated areas and America's smallest towns.

Prometheus can play the inside game when they must, but they know how to stage a protest, too. So on Monday dozens of Prometheans and their allies showed up outside NAB headquarters armed with hula hoops and stilts to call out Mr. Smith for turning the whole process into a circus. It was an inspired moment and certainly embarrassing for the NAB, whose staff watched from behind the glass facade but declined to come out to meet with joyful crowd.

Where's Frank Capra When You Need Him?

It's not over yet -- and the Senate is expected to be around to vote for at least another few days. So there's still time in the final reel for Mr. Smith to come out of hiding, confess his sins, and announce that he won't stand in the way any longer.

Or perhaps the twist in this version will be that 100 senators demonstrate that all their chatter about bipartisanship isn't bunk by ignoring the lobbyists, lifting their holds, and giving back a tiny portion of the public airwaves to the public.

Sounds like a fantasy, I know. But is it really too much to hope for a happy ending, just this once?

Better than just hoping for a Hollywood ending, why not take five minutes right now to a call Mr. Smith (at 202-429-5449) and your senators (at 202-224-3121) and ask for one?

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