Low-power FM stations fill a public service niche. As small, decidedly local stations, they are free to experiment in ways well beyond what a commercial station would consider prudent, and to program to ever-smaller subsets of local populations.
For these reasons and others, we have consistently supported the service even as some industry groups have been opposed, some stridently so.
We suspected that once LPFMs began broadcasting, the worst of the early doom-and-gloom predictions — “enormous interference,” lots of short-spacing problems, “part-time people who want to turn their [stations] on any time they feel like playing,” to quote comments filed in 1998 — would be seen as overwrought. So far we’ve been mostly right.
We’re glad LPFM now has garnered support from FCC chairmen past and present on both sides of the political aisle.
The commission recently acted to fine-tune LPFM rules, essentially tightening the assurances that LPFM would be “local” from both the ownership and programming standpoints. It also reestablished an earlier limit of one station per LPFM licensee.
It took these steps saying it hopes to foster and protect a service that “creates opportunities for new voices on the airwaves and to allow local groups, including schools, churches and other community-based organizations, to provide programming responsive to local community needs and interests.”
RW thinks these are excellent changes to preserve the independent, local nature of the service.
The FCC also sought comment on changes that potentially could expand LPFM licensing, including a possible recommendation that Congress remove the requirement that LPFMs protect full-power stations operating on third-adjacents. We concur in that, as we’ve written before.
The commission also laid out possible further changes and asked for comment; in doing so it raised numerous important questions.
Among them, the FCC tentatively has concluded that full-service stations must provide technical and financial assistance to LPFMs when implementation of a full-service station facility proposal would cause interference to an LPFM station.
The idea behind this change surely is to make sure any subsequent facility upgrade by one of the “big boys” won’t essentially squash an LPFM. But while we support responsible expansion of LPFM, we hope the FCC will proceed cautiously in this area. We remain leery of any rule that could place an onus of unreasonable cost on existing broadcasters.
We also anticipate there will be scenarios that could be difficult to resolve; for instance, a full-power station may wish to expand to produce service to many more people than the LPFM can serve but might be precluded or discouraged with such a rule. Also, it will be difficult to assess what to do in the event an LPFM claims interference. The FCC may need to weigh the “greater good” benefit and treat such situations case by case.
There is much more to digest in the FCC’s detailed report on LPFM, which was published in mid-December as we went to press. We will watch with interest and hope that any planned system of mitigating conflict not place undue restrictions on full-service stations.
More broadly, should the industry be concerned about the apparent elevation of LPFM to a primary — or at least better-than-secondary — status?
The public notice certainly seems to indicate a more protective stance by the FCC toward LPFMs against full-service stations. Will “LoPos” soon be in a position to block full-service stations that want to add a station or change a city of license? Full-service stations will not be eager to hand over such bargaining power.
There is much to be discussed in the questions the FCC raises (including its apparently heightened, and overdue, awareness of broad problems with how it treats FM translator applications). We’ll be writing more about that.
But looking at things broadly, what the commission seems to be doing with LPFM is similar to what it did with LPTVs: started them as a secondary service and, as the industry matured, created a subset (Class A TV) which, because it met certain criteria, would be entitled to at least some protection.
But there are important differences. LPFM is still a nascent service; it’s not clear whether the FCC is going to impose additional regulatory requirements on them that might justify the additional protection; and the FM allotment system is still in a state of development, as we have seen with the recent revision of process to change city of license.
On the TV side there has not been much change in the basic channel allocation scheme for a long time, and stations had pretty much become static in facilities. By contrast, for years there has been FM re-allotment activity that has entailed moving channels, transmitter sites and so forth. That activity is likely to increase (or at least not decrease) with the change-in-city-of-license process.
If such changes are now going to depend at least to some degree on protecting LPFMs, we see potential for problems.