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FCC Commissioner Clyburn Suggests Channels 5 & 6 for Radio

FCC Commissioner Mingon Clyburn

The National Federation of Community Broadcasters just wrapped up its annual conference this past weekend in St. Paul, MN. The NFCB has been a true anchor in the community radio movement, both supporting individual stations and advocating on their behalf in DC. This year the FCC actually graced the conference, with Commissioner Mingon Clyburn giving a speech on June 10.

Commissioner Clyburn certainly let loose quite a few surprises, starting with suggesting that TV channels 5 and 6 could be reallocated for non-commercial FM radio, low-power FM or AM broadcasters. While she said that she wasn’t suggesting an immediate change, Clyburn said that, “it is time for us to take a serious look at
where these services fit within the overall spectrum plan, and that Channels 5 and 6 maybe a good home.”

The spectrum allocated to analog channels 5 and 6 sits just below the FM band’s lower limit of 88 MHz. Before the digital transition you might remember being able to hear channel 6 TV audio at the bottom end of your FM dial. Although the transition meant full-power stations lost their analog audio signal, low-power TV stations were permitted to remain analog. As I’ve reported before, there are several low-power channel 6 stations taking advantage of their proximity to the FM dial to function effectively like radio stations rather than TV.

Any reallocation of channel 5 and 6 spectrum would require dealing with the few full-power stations that chose to stay put rather than move to different spectrum space. It would also have to deal with the LPTV stations on channels 5 & 6. My guess is that these stations could be offered to move into spectrum allocated for digital, though it might take some horse trading. It’s also likely that those few LPTV stations on channel 6 are going to be very reluctant to move and give up their radio-like business, although it’s just a matter of time before the FCC kills that business model by forcing all LPTV to go digital.

Commissioner Clyburn also suggested that community stations consider the charms of HD Radio. She acknowledged that, “limited receiver penetration and the cost of digital transmission equipment may make owning an HD Radio station an unappealing option for community radio groups.” However, she also proposed that “HD can provide yet another way to promote broadcast diversity and expanded programming option.” She even suggested that community stations or groups seeking stations could partner with other commercial or non-commercial stations to program their secondary HD-2 and HD-3 channels.

It’s pretty rare for community radio to get such a courtesy call from an FCC commissioner, and all the more rare for a commissioner to drop so many bombshells. I’m cautiously optimistic to hear such support for community radio and an apparent willingness to consider an expansion of the FM band in order to accommodate more non-commercial stations. I do have to note, however, that there’s no indication that an expanded band would be only for community radio. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if the idea gains any traction with the full Commission.

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