With the last group of low-power FM stations approved in the 2013 licensing window now going on the air—and no new LPFM windows scheduled—many folks are wondering what other licensed low-powered broadcasting opportunities might exist. So far this year we at Radio Survivor have fielded quite a few inquiries from people who would like to start a station, or who are simply curious about the subject.
A handful of them asked about the possibility for a low-power AM radio service. It’s a reasonable question, especially since in the last decade the FCC has made so-called “AM revitalization” one of its broadcast priorities, and the Netherlands approved its own low-power AM service last year (machine translation from Dutch).
As it turns out, several proposals to create a LPAM service have been submitted to the FCC, with the first coming in 1997. However, it’s obvious that none have become reality.
The proposal that received the most serious consideration came from a coalition of groups led by Don Schellhardt and Nick Leggett—the latter responsible for the first 1997 proposal—two members of the Amherst Alliance which also contributed to the proposal that kicked off the eventual creation of LPFM. Filed in August, 2005, this petition suggested a commercial low-power service. Commercial, because petitioners contended that stations would need advertising revenue to be economically viable, in addition to providing advertising opportunities for small businesses unable to afford time on full-power stations.
I interviewed Schellhardt about it back in 2004 for my old radio show and podcast, “Mediageek.” The archive audio is still available.
That proposal was itself a follow-up to one filed two years earlier by broadcast engineer Fred Baumbartner, which was never taken up by the FCC. This time around the Commission did open up a proceeding, RM–11287, in which about 75 comments were filed. The filing didn’t escape the attention of commercial broadcast industry groups, which generally opposed the idea. The National Association of Broadcasters wrote, “the LPAM Petition threatens to undermine the Commission’s efforts to clean up and improve the AM band,” presaging the current AM Revitalization effort.
A year later the original petitioners, joined by REC Networks, submitted a “streamlined proposal” to use technical specifications inspired by 10-watt Travelers’ Information Stations. Those are the stations which you’ll see advertised on the highway offering road condition updates and tourist information.
Ultimately the LPAM proposal received no additional action from the FCC, and the proceeding was closed formally on January 30, 2015.
Gone, perhaps, but not forgotten. Only seven months later Radio World published a commentary by independent broadcaster Jim Potter advocating for LPAM in order to revive “live and local” radio.
Making no reference to the earlier Schellhardt/Leggett or Baumgartner petitions, Potter called for stations to be licensed at 250 to 500 watts of power (Schellhardt/Leggett originally proposed just 100 watts, the same as LPFM), but did not specify commercial or non-commercial service. “ He argued that high-powered AM stations, “are doomed to wither because large mass-appeal stations cannot serve the ever-increasing diversity of large urban populations.” The solution would be low-powered AM stations for communities to,
“satisfy their own local needs, including radio swap shop; city council and school board meetings; ask the mayor call-in shows; high school ballgame remotes; community calendar, school lunch menus, local news and views and inexpensive spots read live by the local announcer. In other words, live and local content, reasons for folks to dust off their kitchen AM radios and find the new station in town. Fancy that!”
(The tenor of this argument ought to sound pretty worn in to anyone familiar to community radio and LPFM.)
Though the FCC decided not to carry low-power AM forward, that doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t have merit and isn’t technically feasibly. Rather, as it is with communications policy, the barrier is political. Not political as in Republican or Democratic, but political with respect to the power of numbers.
Looking over the comments to the Schellhardt/Leggett proposal it’s clear there just wasn’t a groundswell of support. By comparison, the push for LPFM in the late 90s joined together a broad coalition that even included the United Church of Christ, alongside a multitude of broadcast professionals, public interest groups, musicians, artists and individuals, with tens of thousands of filings submitted to the FCC.
I don’t fault the original LPAM petitioners for the outcome. Building the needed coalition and overwhelming grassroots support is hard, hard work, and only a tiny fraction of proposals to the FCC are ever granted any kind of consideration, never mind actually becoming policy. My sense is that AM radio simply isn’t that attractive to enough groups and people. Moreover, many of the advocacy groups one might expect to back a new low-powered radio service are likely preoccupied (if not overwhelmed) with supporting existing and new LPFM stations, or focused on other enormous public interest battles, like net neutrality and media ownership.
So, I have to conclude that a new low-power AM broadcast service in the U.S. is very unlikely. That said, anyone can submit a fresh proposal and dig in. However, it would be wise to learn from the previous proposals and the success of LPFM and think about how to build a movement—especially one that can meet or beat the expected resistance from the established broadcast industry, which has consistently opposed all low-powered radio efforts of the last twenty years.
That said, if you’re interested in getting on the air I’d strongly recommend researching to see if there’s an existing community radio station or new LPFM in your area. To aid in your search, Wikipedia has a reasonably accurate list of community stations (though unhelpfully listed alphabetically, rather than geographically), and REC Networks maintains a list of low-power FM construction permits that have been granted since 2013. Odds are there’s a station somewhere that could use some help and some new programmers. It may not be as exciting as starting your own station, but it’s also not nearly as expensive or labor-intensive. In any event, any opportunity to broadcast is valuable, and shouldn’t be dismissed.
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