HD Radio on LPFM: Could It Be?

The author is an engineer and LPFM veteran.
With the pending launch of more than 1,000 new FM radio stations, there’s been some discussion about whether any holders of these LPFM construction permits may attempt to go on the air as digital HD Radio stations.

There are 814 LPFMs on the air from the first round of LPFM licensing more than a decade ago, according to FCC data. According to Rick Greenhut of HD Radio developer iBiquity, there are no HD LPFMs currently in existence.

This is neither surprising nor difficult to understand given the lack of radios (though this is changing); the cost of gear and licensing (though these are dropping); and the fact that 10 percent of an enterprise resource planning of 100 watts could barely “light a night light” (though a lot of power isn’t always needed to cover your audience).

Nonetheless, after lengthy excited discussions, the board of WDPE in Dover/New Philadelphia, Ohio, to which I am an advisor and consultant, has decided that the station should launch as what might be the first LPFM HD Radio station in the nation.

We’ve spent an extensive amount of time communicating with iBiquity, equipment manufacturers and even the FCC to get a handle of what can and cannot be done. The idea that this little station could explore uncharted territory is interesting and exciting. But to launch it as an HD LPFM with potentially four multicast channels will easily double our cost. Those additional expenditures include the digital licensing, computers and studio gear for the extra three stations/streams, the HD Radio gear (exporter, importer, etc.) and additional music licensing and typical operating expenses. And that’s certainly not a comprehensive list.

Dover-New Philadelphia Educational Broadcasting owns WDPE, and part of our mission statement is to give our students (whose ages can range from 7 to 70+) an experience in a studio environment similar to any “real radio studio.”

Ideally, this exposure might push the students into broadcasting, bringing with them a great education. If future radio is made up of multiple streams (no matter the transmission method), the station should afford students a chance to learn, program and understand how to make all this happen.

It also presents unique possibilities for revenue generation and expanded coverage and programming.

• Though the LPFM station is and must be noncommercial by current FCC rules, an LPFM with HD Radio capabilities can be commercial on the HD2, -3 and -4 multicast sub channels! This came as a huge surprise; but current rules do not prohibit this, according to Deputy Chief, Engineering, James Bradshaw of the FCC. He emphasized that this doesn’t mean the commission couldn’t change the rules later; but at this time there is nothing prohibiting this. [Ed. Note: The FCC has since corrected this statement; for an important update, see "No Ads on Public Radio HD2 Stations."]

• Commercial sub-channels could be leased out. You might lease one to, say, an AM station to rebroadcast its signal locally in HD quality! An AM might seek an FM translator; but what if there were no frequencies available? Unlike an FM translator, the AM station could actually use their leased HD (your sub-channel) to broadcast a second local high school sporting event or any secondary program (no need to simulcast 100 percent, or at all). In this scenario, you have the great benefit of a likely long-time broadcaster promoting HD FM on their AM station, which naturally helps your FM and your other HD LPFM channels. [Ed. Note: Again for an important clarification to these policies, see "No Ads on Public Radio HD2 Stations."]

• Lease an HD LFPM channel to a local religious organization or another for-profit or nonprofit for their use. Maybe a church wants a station or a group of “old, retired commercial broadcast guys” want a station. These sub-channel tenants are going to help you to support your nonprofit and to build the audience of your HD channels, as well as HD Radio technology.

• Maybe you decide to program all three of your HD LPFM “extra channels” yourself. With your additional channels, you certainly can fill many programming voids in your community. Maybe you have a large Hispanic population or a large group of recent immigrants from another country who aren’t speaking English or are still learning? You can use one of your channels for programming to help them learn through programming in their native language. Or maybe you use a channel in some other way that is primarily educational. There are so many possibilities.

• What if you used all your channels to complement each other for a special event? For instance, in Dover-New Philadelphia there is an old and fierce rivalry between local high schools at the end of the football season, in which the Tornadoes take on the Quakers; it is a big event! If you had four stations and this sort of event on the calendar, why not put your play-by-play coverage on your analog and HD1 signal and supplement it with the same play-by-play on the HD2 but with a rock n’ roll soundtrack laid down right under the announcers? (Who has even done a sportscast with a rock n’ roll soundtrack?)

But hey, that’s not all! What about using your HD3 signal to throw someone in the Dover stands and go along the Dover sideline through the entire game and get reactions and talk to people? And go ahead and do the same with your HD4 signal on the New Philadelphia side of the stands? If you have the ability to cover something from all angles simultaneously, why not really do something unique? This could be an interesting “quadracast” in HD. Just imagine how distinctive, fun and interesting it could be.

These are just some of the ideas the board at WDPE has been discussing. The station has a long way to go to get on the air — and a lot of money still left to raise — but the group certainly is thinking outside the box. And one of the great things about working with so many people who aren’t “traditional broadcasters” is the fact that they aren’t afraid to explore new territory.

An important note in using HD secondary channels for commercial broadcasting is the great concern about keeping your nonprofit out of the “for-profit” world. Be sure to consult you station’s attorneys and tax consultants so you keep everything well-defined and legal. Keep in mind that you only have this LPFM CP (or license) because you are a nonprofit organization.

WDPE 102.3 has a CP and a nice location to call “home.” We’re fortunate enough to have our future transmitter co-located with our studio, an excited and energetic board, a community excited about getting a new FM station and a lot of pretty big dreams and goals. The prospect of launching an LPFM station in HD is unique, even if some may say it’s a little crazy.

Comment on this or any story. Email radioworld@nbmedia.com with “Letter to the Editor” in the subject line.

For more on the topic of low-power FM, also read Radio World’s eBook “LPFM 2014,” available for free at www.radioworld.com/ebooks.

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Comment List:

Actually, if the stream is publicly available using an ordinary HD radio, it is considered broadcasting and LPFM/NCE stations can not carry commercials. This issue was already fought out in the DTV world and there's no difference between a X.2 DTV subchannel and an HD-2 DAB subchannel. This is different than a subsidiary communications service that is not publicly available. I talk more about this here: http://michibradley.com/node/10
By Michi Bradley on 9/7/2014
Kyle> REC was very involved in the rules to allow for LPFM stations to own translators. We made it very clear that LPFM translators can only rebroadcast the main analog channel of an LPFM station if they ever decided to go HD. The FCC has included this into the rules. See §73.860(b)(2).
By Michi Bradley on 9/6/2014
Unless the LPFM has money to burn, I can't see this working. The only upside would be coupling it with a translator to make a new commercial channel. In some highly populated locations, that might work, but for 99% of LPFM's the economics simply aren't there. Between the large up front cost of HD equipment, ongoing Ibiquity licencing and royalty fees, and commercial rate music licensing from ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, the idea of HD quickly becomes un-affordable. In many instances, it would be cheaper to purchase an under-performing AM and pair it with a translator. At least, you wouldn't have to keep paying Ibiquity royalties.
By Chuck Conrad on 9/5/2014
Highly Dubious and Low Power. A perfect marriage for those among us who have higher money than their I.Q. There is synergy in a double waste of time when combined with a double waste of money. Zero sum same. "Nothing From nothing Leaves Nothing", still today, Billy Preston http://youtu.be/G_DV54ddNHE
By Ollie Tabuger on 9/5/2014
Dumbest idea I've ever heard of or seen. Sounds like a scheme for so called 'consultants' to 'cash in'
By Sammy G on 9/4/2014
If you could run a whole 100 watts in HD you might have a chance, but remember, most HD stations run 1% digital, which would be one stinkin watt; even if they could run (-10dB or) 10% of their signal, that's only 10watts to work with. You might get something out of that, based on a 1KW AM here that had a 10W HD signal - if FM can even obtain that 4 mile range that the AM had (before they shut it down). I'm trying to figure out what Bowling Green State University is going to do with their HD transmitter when they already have a flea-powered campus station, winning an HD exciter isn't going to even cover their campus, much like the LPFM discussed here - what a 'prize'.
By Freddie Falcon on 9/4/2014
I'm not sure what you have experienced with HD but my experience in Atlanta, Ga. is very good. Even running -20 dbc IBOC gets reliable coverage on HD when using in-dash car tuners with outside antennea Stations like mine who run -14dbc or better can be heard out to the 54 dbu with very few drop outs. I was under the impression that HD was NOT legal on a translator. But the FCC has basically thrown the rules out the window so who knows....!! I agree with the others who advise concentrating on the analog signal first. Don't bite off more than you can chew! Many of the LPFMs in Atlanta have gone off the air...
By Tom Taylor on 9/4/2014
There is a translator in Methuen,MA that operates with HD. It has a whopping 2 mile range.
By Mike Hemeon on 9/4/2014
Since an LPFM can now own up to two translators, this potentially means that an LPFM's commercial channels could be used to rebroadcast the commercial formats, which is an interesting twist.
By Kyle on 8/29/2014
Both good points, gentlemen. No LPFM is a "flamethrowin' 50kW powerhouse" and the HD injection is a small percentage of the 100 watts, but a great old school chief once taught me that FM does NOT stand for Frequency Modulation but a much different expression which started with F - and ended with Magic. And quite frankly, HD in radio may NOT survive. But my bigger picture is more towards the multi-casting aspect of this LPFM and less about the transmission method. And since WDPE's mission is to serve as a training ground to radio and communication, the board believes that offering the students a way to experience multi-channel programming will be much more realistic and valuable to anyone that goes out "to the real world of broadcasting". Thanks for feedback! Respectfully, Dan
By Dan Slentz on 8/29/2014
Translater with HD? What's the range on that 100 ft? 1 ft per watt? With or without dropouts?
By Bob Young on 8/29/2014
It's all fine and dandy, but really now.... your HD coverage (with 100 watts ERP) would probably be about a mile (if you're lucky). Let alone the cost, in addition to the upfront costs of a HD transmitter are enormous. Then, those exorbitant license fees from iBquity (per stream) will also do a number on your bank account. And honestly, how many HD Radios are really within your normal coverage area? You'd be better off concentrating on your analog signal, with normal FM Stereo. HD coverage is pretty dismal. Good luck, nonetheless with you new station.
By Peter Q. George on 8/29/2014

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