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New radio applicants generate GOP dilemma

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WASHINGTON — For months, Republicans in Congress have sought to block a Federal Communications Commission program to license hundreds of new low-power radio stations. With the first batch of applications now in, half are from religious organizations, including fundamentalist churches active in conservative Republican politics.

From Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego to In His Image Outreach Ministries in East Greenwich, R.I., hundreds of evangelical churches are asking for space on the airwaves to spread the Gospel. Some simply want to read Scripture verbatim; others want to preach against abortion.

They will not get the chance, however, if the Republican congressional leadership — lined up on the side of big broadcasting companies and their lobbying group — gets its way. And that has left many of the applicants and their supporters frustrated, while offering a fresh reminder of the divisions that persist in the Republican Party.

"It looks like money's talking, maybe at the expense of what would be logical long-term — the Republicans supporting their supporters," said Rich Cizik, director of the Washington office of the National Association of Evangelicals, which has 4,300 churches as members.

Congressional Republicans, however, say their position is based on the interference that broadcasters insist the new stations would cause for the signals of existing stations.

The applications offer the latest twist in a debate that radio executives and media activists consider one of the industry's most important issues. William Kennard, the FCC chairman, has said that adding hundreds of low-power radio stations is one of his top priorities — a key way to counteract the increasing consolidation of the industry into the hands of a relatively few big broadcasters.

He plans to award 1,000 new licenses for stations that could be heard within three and a half miles of their signal. The first could be on the air before the end of the year.

Radio executives and some Republicans in Congress have said that Kennard failed to consult others before devising a plan that would seriously hurt existing broadcasters. "Chairman Kennard, wanting this as his legacy, pushed this issue before it was fully and completely tested," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.

Kennard has called the interference claims "fraudulent" and simply an attempt to protect existing broadcasters.