On Feb. 4, the Federal Communications Commission’s Media Bureau stood behind a decision it made in 2018 to grant a translator to an AM operator in the Philadelphia market as part of Auction 100, the name of the second cross-service FM translator window that opened at the end of January 2018. The window was opened to any AM station licensee that did not participate in either the 2016 FM translator modification windows or the 2017 cross-service FM translator auction filing window.
This recent decision by the Media Bureau offers new insights into its policy decision making when it comes to awarding FM translators to AM stations versus LPFM operators.
Low-power FM advocates have long argued that there should be sufficient filing opportunities for LPFM stations when it comes to translators and booster stations, often pointing to the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 and its goal of granting equal protection to community radio stations.
As part of the auction, the bureau approved an application by Mega-Philadelphia LLC for a new cross-service FM translator for W239DS in Camden, N.J. Soon after, a group that included Common Frequency, Prometheus Radio Project and the Center for International Media Action filed informal objections against hundreds of pending translator applications, including the application for W239DS. The FCC, however, dismissed and denied all objections and the following petitions for reconsideration — except for the one filed against W239DS. The bureau found that the petitioner, Paul Bame, had sufficient standing to maintain a petition for reconsideration.
Bame, who is engineering director for Prometheus Radio, stated that the Media Bureau made several errors in initially denying the objection, including disregarding certain safeguards for preserving spectrum for LPFM stations. He also stated that the commission failed to fully meet the requirements of the Local Community Radio Act while running that auction and failed to use the same procedures that were established in Auction 83..
But the bureau disagreed. It dismissed Bame’s contention that the Camden, N.J., application would potentially impede the potential move of an existing LPFM station — and thus not be compliant with the LCRA. Rather, the application followed the exact rules set up as part of Auction 100. And Auction 100 complies with the LCRA, the bureau said.
In fact, the commission said in its ruling, the procedures adopted by the bureau were designed to prioritize the LPFM filing window before opening up translator opportunities to AM licensees. It also pointed to language within the LCRA that says the commission must ensure that licensing opportunities are available for all secondary services and are made based on the needs of the local community.
“The commission determined that AM radio stations provide important community-
based programming, and that measures needed to be taken to preserve that service,” the bureau said in its findings. “While Section 5 [of the LCRA] mandates that secondary services be equal in status, FM translators and LPFM stations are not equal in their ability to address the articulated public interest need of preserving AM service to communities.”
The bureau also disagreed with Bame’s suggestion that it should have followed the rules set up in Auction 83, an auction designed to resolve groups of mutually exclusive applications for those who applied in a 2003 auction for a new commercial FM translator station. More than 13,000 new translator applications were submitted as part of that auction.
Faced with what it called an unprecedented volume of translator applications filed in the general Auction 83 window, the commission said it introduced “extraordinary remedial measures,” including limiting the number of filed applications that applicants could continue to prosecute and requiring applicant-filed preclusion studies — “all to preserve spectrum for future LPFM stations.” So following those same measures in Auction 100 — which had a strict limit on the number of allowed new translator applications — wouldn’t be required, the bureau said.
In short, the bureau disagreed with Bame’s petition, found the granting of the Camden application served the public interest, and thus dismissed and denied the petition for reconsideration.
It remains to be seen whether this decision is indicative of a larger FCC goal of supporting AM stations as part of its AM revitalization efforts, and how LPFMs will be impacted in the long term.