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It’s a New Day for the Radio Dial

A historic victory, and the road ahead for low-power radio

The author is policy director of the Prometheus Radio Project, which advocates for low-power community radio.

After three runs in Congress and 10 years of mounting grassroots pressure, the Local Community Radio Act was signed into law on Jan. 4. Radio lovers, would-be independent broadcasters and communities without access to local media are celebrating a new day for the radio dial.

‘After 10 years of jumping through hoops in D.C., low-power radio is ready to take the show on the road.’ LPFM backers protested near NAB headquarters shortly before the legislation passed. Photo by Brian Long Low-power stations save lives during emergencies, like WQRZ(LP) in Bay St. Louis, Miss., did in Hurricane Katrina, or KYGT(LP) did during a 2003 snowstorm in Idaho Springs, Colo. They give voice to underserved groups, like the Hmong community programs on KRBS(LP) in Oroville, Calif., or the disability community show on WSCA(LP) in Portsmouth, N.H. And they bring young people to the art of radio, like the “at-risk” youth on KKDS(LP) in Eureka, Calif., or the Radio Palante teen programmers on WCOM(LP) in Carrboro, N.C.

Above all, low-power radio is participatory, making this service as creative and diverse as our communities themselves.

The new legislation repeals restrictions on low-power FM radio imposed by the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act of 2000. That earlier law, backed by the National Association of Broadcasters, restricted the FCC from allocating LPFM stations on third-adjacent channels, and the new law removes these restrictions.

Although this will allow the FCC to finally begin licensing LPFM stations again, the law alone won’t bring community radio to the cities which have been waiting for all these years. Back at the FCC, there are a few more hoops for low-power radio to jump through.

The great translator invasion

The new law won’t accomplish much if the FCC follows through with a flawed plan that could unintentionally give away most open channels to FM translators.

The plan is aimed at saving channels for LPFM, but new data shows it will do the opposite. How did this happen? When thousands of translator applications flooded a 2003 auction, threatening to fill all remaining open spectrum on the FM band, the FCC froze the auction. They wanted to find a solution that would preserve channels for LPFM and avoid an unprecedented transfer of radio spectrum to speculators and mega-networks.

To solve the problem, the FCC tentatively settled on a 10-applications-each processing cap, planning to dismiss all but 10 applications from each applicant for translators. Unfortunately, engineering simulations by the public interest group Common Frequency show that the current “10 cap” would be disastrous. As currently designed, the cap would still give most channels in big cities to translators. In fact, one applicant could end up with 10 new translators in the same city, with not a single channel left for community groups.

It would be tragic if the FCC’s response to the translator problem inadvertently ends LPFM’s new day before it begins. We’re open to any idea that preserves LPFM availability in cities, but the easiest way to follow the law’s intent would be to process LPFM applications first, prior to those of translators. This way, local communities with a need for low-power radio have a chance to say so, before their hometown airwaves get turned over to non-local translators.

Who’s on second?

For decades, full-power FM stations and FM translators have used the “contour method” to locate their stations, a technique that accounts for topography when finding available channels.

To create opportunities for LPFMs in cities, the FCC will need to use this industry-standard method, rather than only allowing the distance-spacing method as they did in the first round of LPFM licensing 10 years ago.

The new law authorizes this, giving a green light to the FCC’s practice of granting second-adjacent waivers when an LPFM can demonstrate that interference is not predicted. Congress rejected the NAB’s attempts to narrow the FCC’s authority to granting only “limited” waivers. Instead, the language of the new law gives the FCC broad discretion to offer waivers on the basis of “all relevant factors, including terrain-sensitive propagation models,” i.e., the modern contour allocations method used by all other broadcasters.

LPFM stations operating under these waivers accept the same obligations to remediate interference complaints as translators, shutting down until interference complaints are resolved, even if that interference is reported outside the protected contour of a full-service station.

In the end, LPFM advocates supported the legislation despite this requirement, because we know from the experience of translators that this hypothetical interference is unlikely. We plan to work with LPFM stations, full-power stations and the FCC to ensure that interference complaints are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction without forcing community stations off the air.

Mary, Mary, secondary

The law also states that LPFM stations will remain secondary to full-power stations.

However, FCC interpretation of secondary status includes some agency discretion to resolve conflicts between low- and full-power stations. The FCC guarantees some protections to low-power stations encroached by full-power stations that move into their signal range.

For example, encroaching stations must warn LPFMs about their move, assist with engineering solutions and help with costs if LPFMs must change locations.

Encroachment affects nearly all LPFM stations, but with continued protections for displaced stations (and stronger support for shortspaced ones), the vast majority will survive unscathed.

Closing the local ownership loophole

Despite the FCC’s intentions to make LPFM a truly local service, giant networks have gamed the system, operating hundreds of stations that have no local presence. These networks put a local organization’s name on the license and then set up a transmitter in a closet to broadcast syndicated programming piped in by satellite 24/7.

Although technically legal, this scam keeps the genuinely local groups — for whom this service was created — off the airwaves. To close the loophole, LPFM stations should be required to produce a reasonable amount of local programming.

New LPFM licenses will be scarce, particularly in urban areas. They should be given to broadcasters who can fulfill the service’s potential: local organizations serving local communities with locally produced programming.

So even after this historic victory, there’s still a little work ahead. But when it’s done, we expect a radio landscape that’s more interesting, more just and more relevant to more people. After 10 years of jumping through hoops in D.C., low-power radio is ready to take the show on the road. Comment on this or any article. Write to [email protected].