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LPFM Expansion Moves Forward, but Is It Too Late?

Volunteers erect KDRT-LP's new antenna.

Volunteers erect KDRT-LP's new antenna.

Today the House Commerce Committee unanimously passed the Local Radio Act by voice vote, opening up the gates to send the bill for a vote by the full House. This bipartisan action is the best hope the restoration of low-power FM has seen since its wings were clipped back in 2000.

When the FCC created LPFM it intended that these stations could be spaced one notch closer on the dial to a full-power station than another full-power station could be place. That is, if there were a full-power station at 101.1 FM, another full-power station may be no closer than 101.9 FM. But under the FCC’s original rules an LPFM could be at 101.7 FM, known as the third adjacent. Each adjacent is .2 MHz, so the first adjacent to 101.1 FM is 101.3 FM and the second is 101.5 FM.

Under heavy pressure from the National Association of Broadcasters Congress and President Clinton horse-traded away this closer spacing in a rider to an omnibus spending bill passed at the end of 2000. This move achieved the NAB’s true goal of limiting the number of new non-commercial stations by making 10 and 100 watt stations absurdly obey the spacing limits for 10,000 watt stations, even though the NAB’s own members operate close-spaced low-power repeater stations called translators. With a flick of Clinton’s pen some hundreds of communities–especially in large metroplexes–were instantaneously deprived of the opportunity to have a new low-power non-commercial community radio station.

LPFM advocates like the Prometheus Radio Project generally claim that passage of the Local Radio Act will enable hundreds of new stations to go on the air. But I do actually wonder if those hundreds are still possible.

The brilliant folks at REC Networks have had an easy online LPFM channel finder for years that lets you search for potential LPFM frequencies anywhere in the US. The finder lets you search using the current restrictions on channel placement, or using the FCC’s original spacing requirements allowing LPFM’s to be on a full-power station’s third adjacent.

REC Networks says, "Sorry Charlie," for LPFM in Chicago.Just today I did a search to see if there would be any open frequencies for either a 100-watt or yet to be licensed 10-watt LPFM station in the city of Chicago if the Local Radio Act passes. According to REC Networks the answer is, “no.” I even did a search for some of Chicago’s adjacent suburbs to see if it would be possible to set up a 10 or 100-watt station that might be heard in the city. The answer was still, “no.”

I chose Chicago for my search not just because I live here, but also because the city is home to a prominent community radio effort, the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP) which has been organizing on behalf of LPFM in the hopes of getting a new station on the Chicago dial. The station goes online soon, and so I was wondering if they have even a half of a chance of being on FM soon. I’m hoping that maybe my quick search and analysis is missing something.

In any event, I’m no radio engineer. So someone with a little better technical knowledge might be able to do a more precise search that will turn up a Chicago location and frequency ready for LPFM when the Local Radio Act passes. But I do think my search highlights a problem: the radio dial is even more crowded now than in 2000. In the intervening nine years there’s been several full-power FM station license windows along with a licensing window for translator stations. Because translator stations are paradoxically allowed to be spaced on the third adjacent even though LPFM stations operating at the same power may not, I fear that many of these repeaters have taken up frequencies where we would otherwise have LPFM station had not Congress clipped the service in 2000.

I don’t doubt that if the Local Radio Act becomes law then new LPFM stations will be possible in small and mid-size cities, and probably on the outer fringes of larger metropolitan areas. But I’m not feeling too optimistic about the city limits of the nation’s 20 largest cities where hyper-local, community-based broadcast is arguably well needed.

In any event, I’m hoping for a speedy vote on the Local Radio Act by the full House, along with passage of the companion Senate bill. Compared to health care reform, restoring LPFM is an easy feel-good win for both Republicans and Democrats that will only piss off the NAB a little bit. Still, there’s three votes (Senate Commerce Committee, full House and full Senate) before President Obama has a chance to sign it. We’ll keep you in the loop.

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