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A growing dispute about whether radio stations should pay royalties to artists when their music is aired may be temporarily eclipsed by a potentially precedent-setting fight about radio stations’ public-service obligations.

Lobbyists and activists are preparing to descend on the Federal Communications Commission after the agency said it will accept comment by Sept. 8 on whether Clear Channel (CCMO), CBS (CBS) and other broadcasters are distorting public debate. They run ads against the royalty proposal, called the Performance Rights Act, but refuse to accept ads supporting it from a music industry group called the MusicFirst Coalition, which includes the Recording Industry Association of America.

“This is not something that the FCC has seen before in this form,” says Samuel Feder, a former FCC general counsel who’s representing MusicFirst.

For example, it differs from a dispute in 2003 when many country music stations refused to air music by the Dixie Chicks after they opposed the Iraq war. “We haven’t seen a concerted campaign where broadcasters’ own economic self-interests were so directly implicated,” Feder says.

The group says that broadcasters’ spots often distort the issue — for example, by calling the royalty a “tax.” But radio stations say that no law requires them to sell airtime to political adversaries

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