Several hours after threatening to veto a massive $1.3 trillion spending plan approved by Congress, President Trump on Friday signed a bill that keeps the federal government open through September and delivers a win-win for radio. The package includes federal funding to help radio stations pay for the expense of building auxiliary facilities to remain on the air during the upcoming television repack. It also officially designates broadcasters as “first responders.”
The omnibus budget bill – approved by the House in a 256-167 vote on Thursday followed by a 65-32 vote in the Senate early Friday – absorbed legislation passed earlier this month by the House that would create the FM Broadcast Station Relocation Fund. The pool of up to $50 million would be tapped by owners of FMs and FM translators to help stations build back-up facilities to remain on the air while engineers are working on a co-located TV antenna. Congress would not reimburse radio stations for lost advertising revenue, however.
In addition to lifting a prohibition on radio stations accessing federal funding, the bill also proposes adding $1 billion over the next two years to the $1.75 billion that Congress already set aside, money that lawmakers now concede won’t be enough to cover all of television and radio’s expenses. The bill appropriates $600 million for the repack fund this year and an additional $400 million in funding is appropriated for 2019.
The National Association of Broadcasters said the additional money would ensure that radio and television stations are “fully and fairly” reimbursed for their spectrum repack location expenses. “We urge immediate passage of this omnibus legislation and look forward to a repack process that holds harmless TV broadcasters, local radio stations and the tens of millions of Americans who rely on our services every day,” NAB president Gordon Smith said in a statement.
A study commissioned by the NAB last year estimated 631 radio stations located in every state except Delaware, Idaho, Rhode Island and South Dakota are at risk of operating at reduced power or being forced off the air during the repack. “Much like anytime someone is accessing a structure, whenever anyone is passing near, through or around an antenna, it’s going to require that they address RF exposure,” Jampro Antennas president Alex Perchevitch said. “If someone needs to pass through that antenna, either inside or outside of it, those stations will need to reduce power while that’s taking place until it is safe for them to increase power again. And if the TV antennas are close to that FM antenna then they’re going to have to reduce power, period, for extended period of time while that work is being done.”
The NAB analysis also warned it is possible FMs could completely lose their antenna position as a total of 1,150 changes will be needed at television transmitter sites. That includes 153 television transmitters that will be shut down completely. Tower company executives tell Inside Radio that it’s more likely television broadcasters will need to reinforce their towers to account for the heavier antennas that some TV stations will require.
House Energy and Commerce Committee chair Greg Walden (R-OR) fought to include the repack dollars in the budget. He said the money will help speed deployment of 5G across the country by clearing TV stations off the spectrum that will be used by wireless carriers.
The 2,232-page budget bill also includes a long sought after change in how broadcasters are viewed during a disaster. It includes the Securing Access to Networks in Disasters Act—otherwise known as the SANDy Act— that would designate radio and TV as “first responders” during emergencies. It cleared both the House and Senate last year after a succession of hurricanes put a spotlight on the issue. But because the bill passed by the House is different than the version the Senate approved—for issues having nothing to do with radio or TV—the two chambers have needed to get on the same page in order for the proposal to land on President Trump’s desk. That’s now happened as it has also been added to the bill.
The proposed legislation would also formally reauthorize the FCC’s operations for the first time in 28 years. And it includes a provision that makes the FCC’s Inspector General independent of the Commission’s chair. The post will instead be appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The move comes as current inspector general David Hunt continues his investigation into contact between Sinclair Broadcast Group and FCC chair Ajit Pai and his top aides about Sinclair’s pending $3.9 billion deal to buy Tribune Media, including news-talk WGN (720) in Chicago.
Conservative reservations about growing deficits had President Trump threatening a veto – even though the legislation includes $1.57 billion for his proposed southern border wall and additional funding for the military. “As a matter of a national security, I’ve signed this omnibus budget bill,” Mr. Trump said during a White House event, adding, “I say to Congress—I will never sign another bill like this again.” Had he followed through with the threat, the federal government faced what would have been the third government shutdown in the past year.