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Chicago Public Radio Calls Out LPTV Stations Exploiting Backdoor to FM Dial

Far outside the view of the general public, the virtual cratediggers of the FCC’s electronic recesses like Matthew and myself are sometimes privy to the little slap-fights that go on between broadcasters. In this case things are getting a little heated over the far left end of the FM dial, with a prominent public radio station calling out LPTV broadcasters exploiting the channel 6 backdoor to the FM dial.

As I’ve been already reported, the FCC recently ended restrictions on the use of FM frequencies adjacent to TV channel 6– 87.9 to 88.5 FM–in markets where former analog channel 6 stations went digital and changed channels.  Now, National Public Radio has petitioned the FCC to open up these frequencies everywhere, even in markets where digital TV stations decided to stay on channel 6 or where there are grandfathered analog low-power TV stations.

NPR’s argument rests on a technical analysis concluding that digital TV signals are far more interference-resistant than analog, and that modern TV tuners are selective enough to make interference from FM negligible for even analog LPTV signals.

Predictably, fellow noncommercial FM broadcasters are lining up in support of NPR’s proposal, while the ABC network and the National Association of Broadcasters have filed comments in opposition, calling into question NPR’s engineering data. There’s a few sparks coming from these opposing comments, but the real fun is buried in comments from Chicago Public Radio.

Without naming names, CPR  pointedly complains,

LPTV stations have begun to invade FM radio, broadcasting audio signals that were licensed for TV broadcast as if they were commercial radio stations on 87. 7 MHz. Not only are these signals inappropriately being broadcast as radio, they are also bleeding 24·hour dance music, with commercial advertising, over into the noncommercial stations that are on the lower NCE FM channels. Like squatters moving into recently-vacated homes, these LPTV stations are, in effect, intentionally broadcasting commercial radio which spills over onto the reserved portion of the FM band, trespassing on the limited territory of their noncommercial neighbors. Before this phenomenon becomes entrenched, the Commission owes the public, as well as public radio stations, a reasoned consideration of this problem.

Not surprisingly Chicago Public Radio has one of these channel 6 LPTV’s broadcasting in its own backyard, though it plays a commercial smooth jazz format. I’m not sure why CPR doesn’t refer directly to Chicago’s WLFM-LP. Instead CPR apparently calls out recently departed “24-hour music format” Pulse FM in New York City.

Nevertheless, it looks like WLFM’s owners already feel the heat. In comments filed the same day as CPR’s, WLFM owner Venture Technologies Group actually writes in support of NPR’s proposal:

VTG believes that these regulations are no longer needed. As NPR rightly points out modern digital television receivers are far less susceptible to adjacent FM-band interference than the analog television receivers that were in use when Section 73.515 was enacted in 1985.

Likewise, without directly naming its local opposition, VTG acknowledges the low-level animosity going on:

For too long NCE FM broadcasters have been at odds with Channel 6 television stations. VTG sees no reason why everybody can’t get along.

But supporting NPR’s proposal doesn’t mean VTG intends to cut its own throat, asking for “flexibility” from the FCC, and strongly urging “the Commission to adopt a formal policy allowing LPTV and Class A television stations broadcasting on Channel 6 the option to… continue broadcasting in analog if they choose to serve their audiences with a portion of their spectrum as an FM audio service at 87.7 FM.”

I’m certain VTG’s qualified support for NPR’s proposal is offered as an olive branch to noncommercial stations, like CPR, with the hope of a little quid pro quo to get them to back off on their decidedly “off-label” use of TV spectrum to become radio broadcasters. I think there’s little chance of the Commission taking seriously VTG’s request to stay analog in order to remain as unofficial radio broadcasters, nor of noncommercial broadcasters extending a little more tolerance. The best VTG can hope for is that the FCC will continue to put off dealing with their use of the channel 6 backdoor until the transition to digital is mandated for LPTV.

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