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FCC acts to preserve space for new low power community radio stations

LOL radio cat courtesy WFMU's Beware of the Blog & Maggie Osterberg's flickr

A couple days ahead of its March open meeting, on Monday the Federal Communications Commission released a two orders addressing the implementation of the Local Community Radio Act to bring more low-power FM community radio stations to the nation’s airwaves [press release PDF]. Most significantly, the FCC has decided to prioritize the establishment of LPFM stations in underserved urban areas, many of which did not qualify for stations under the rules that existed prior to the passage of the LCRA.

One of the main challenges facing the FCC is the backlog of 6500 applications for FM translator repeater stations. Because of the relaxed spacing requirements enacted by the LCRA, many of these translator applications would compete for spaces on the dial that would otherwise be suitable for a new LPFM community station. While the Commission will proceed with reviewing these translator applications before accepting new LPFM apps, in its Fourth Report and Order [PDF] the Commission sets forth procedures to ensure that frequencies appropriate for LPFM stations remain, especially in densely populated urban areas that are underserved by existing broadcast media.

The Commission explicitly acknowledges that the next licensing window for LPFM “presents a critical, and indeed possibly a last, opportunity to nurture and promote a community radio service that can respond to unmet listener needs and underserved communities in many urban areas.” At the same time, the FCC finds that since translator stations have more flexible licensing standards the next LPFM licensing round, “will have only a modest impact on licensing opportunities for future translator stations.” Therefore the Commission is favoring the licensing of LPFM stations because they “are uniquely positioned to meet local needs, particularly in areas of higher population density where LPFM service is practical and sustainable.”

In order to make this happen the Commission largely adopts the priorities it suggested in its Third Further Notice last year. This includes setting a floor of potential LPFM licensing opportunities in the 150 largest radio markets that must be preserved once all translator applications are processed. This floor ranges from 8 available frequencies in the top 20 markets, to 5 in markets above 100.

The Commission also adopted reasoning proposed by groups like the Prometheus Radio Project, to narrow the geographic area around a dense urban center in which these LPFM frequencies should be preserved. The FCC intends to use this smaller “grid” in denser urban markets where the smaller area represents more than 90 percent of the population of the the larger geographic grid. With this method the Commission hopes to avoid open LPFM frequencies only being available in less densely populated outer fringes of urban centers after translator licenses are granted in more densely populated areas of the market.

However, in a nod to the National Association of Broadcasters, the FCC also agrees to give current translator applicants in these so-called “spectrum limited” markets the opportunity to demonstrate that their applications would not preclude any LPFM opportunities, if granted. The Commission will also allow these applicants one opportunity to make minor changes to their applications in order to meet this requirement.

LPFM advocacy group Prometheus Radio Project applauded the FCC’s action, observing that it opens the door for the first new urban community radio stations “in decades.” Prometheus Policy Director Brandy Doyle said,

“And we’re particularly glad that the FCC has taken our recommendation to ensure that the frequencies set aside are in populated areas, where they are needed. This will make a big difference in San Antonio, Sacramento, and 12 other mid-sized markets, where stations too far from the city would have reached only tumbleweeds or farmland.”

The Commission also took some minor steps to address concerns that some non-commercial translator applicants have been trafficking in these licenses for profit, in conflict with the FCC’s intent for the service. The FCC settled on setting a national cap of 50 applications for any one entity, while further limiting an applicant to having only one application in a spectrum-limited market.

Finally, the FCC announced it is seeking comment on several recommendations to make LPFM community stations more sustainable and improve service to communities. Amongst these recommendations are eliminating the not-yet-licensed 10 watt class of service, while increasing the top permissible power level of LPFM stations in rural areas from 100 to 250 watts. The Commission also suggests that Native Nations should be able to own and operate LPFM stations, perhaps even if the tribe already owns or has a controlling interest in a full-power, full-service station.

A suggestion that is likely to draw criticism from many LPFM advocates is one to permit the cross-ownership of an LPFM station with translator stations. This proposal seems like the Commission’s attempt to throw a bone to the large religious broadcasters who rely on large chains of translator stations to rebroadcast the programming of a main full-power station in order to create a nationwide network on the cheap. These broadcasters are likely to be unhappy with the FCC’s decision to give LPFM stations priority, and so it seems like this is an attempt to mollify them by letting them get into the LPFM game and potentially reclaim some of those “lost” frequencies.

The adoption of such a rule could have a significant effect on competition for LPFM licenses, since these noncommercial religious translators are often applied for by local groups that have no formal connections to the broadcaster that originates the signal being rebroadcast. If LPFM-translator cross-ownership were permitted, there would be a sudden influx of dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants that would otherwise be ineligible for an LPFM license. My concern would be about these groups’ intention and ability to actually produce and broadcast locally-originated programming, since translators explicitly do not air such programs. That’s why translators are attractive to these groups, making the cost and complication for owning and operating them relatively minimal for local groups. However, an LPFM with 8 or more hours of local programming a day is a much more involved endeavor, that these same groups may not actually be able to maintain, if they even have a real intention to do so in the first place.

But, of course, the Commission will be accepting public comments on these proposals, and I’m certain that LPFM advocates, the broadcast industry, NPR and religious broadcasters won’t hesitate to weigh in.

All in all it looks like the FCC has struck a reasonable compromise between resolving the translator backlog and maintaining space for new LPFMs. It was very unlikely that the Commission would decide to move forward with a LPFM licensing window before it attended to the pending translator apps, even if that’s what community radio advocates most wished for. However, it’s definitely second best that the Commission decided to maintain a set floor of LPFM-eligible licenses be maintained, especially in dense urban markets, in addition to making moves to ensure these spots in the dial actually serve the urban centers rather than the outskirts.

Now what remains to be seen is if some markets actually end up with more than the minimum number of LPFM spots after translators get dealt with. Also, it is still not clear that the nation’s largest and most dense markets, like New York and Chicago, will still have any LPFM frequencies open anywhere near their urban core even with the LCRA’s new spacing standards.

In any event, there will be many more cities that should see new community radio stations, and that’s a good thing.


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