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Does the FCC short change rural radio?

A small band of reform groups have asked the Federal Communications Commission to rethink how it allocates radio licenses in rural areas. They argue that the current system allows big broadcasters to grab suburban/rural signals on the edge of large metropolitan regions, in some instances knocking out smaller stations. The license seeker, they say, doesn’t really want to serve the rural area in question, just broadcast to the big metro market next door.

“Low power stations and local communities are especially at risk when full-power stations decide to move their community of license from one community into another community, which is closer to a larger, urban area,” complained the Prometheus Radio Project and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters in a filing sent to the FCC this week. “In some cases, the full-power station moves into a community already being serviced by a low power station, which faces the threat of being taken off the air by the full-power station.”

Even the FCC says its wondering about its policies, concerned that they “skew” the agency’s decisions “toward communities near large cities, at the expense of new and needed service at smaller communities and in rural areas.” The Commission is running a proceeding to reconsider its allocation rules.

One proceeding filer, William Clay, submitted an extensive analysis of recent FM license awards. He looked at whether the winning station really served its designated “community of license” (COL). Clay found that

● In 93% (152) of the 164 first local service grants, the new COL comprises less than 10% of the covered population; in 34% (56), the new COL comprises less than 1%.

● 59% (119) of all 203 granted changes in COL were for commercial stations with population coverage that exceeds 50,000 but that claim to provide a first local
service. In no case is their COL their largest (#1) covered community.

“Most such COL are unlikely to receive any distinctive service from ‘their’ new radio stations,” Clay concludes.

Prometheus and NFCB argue that the population of a station’s COL should come to at least ten percent of the total audience within the stations’ broadcast signal, “to ensure that egregious abuse does not take place.” A license holder that serves an area mostly outside of its COL should be required to commit to localism standards. “Specifically, the Commission should require the licensee (1) to produce eight hours of locally-originated content per day and (2) to maintain the location of the main studio within the community of license.”

Needless to say, the National Association of Broadcasters is not crazy about these ideas. “The broadcasting industry is experiencing substantial declines in revenues, and many stations are going dark,” NAB’s comments in this proceeding conclude. “To combat these circumstances, broadcasters must have reasonable flexibility to improve their service and expand their audiences as a means of maintaining revenues, and in turn, their ability to provide the critical news, information and entertainment that listeners have come to expect.”

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