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FCC to Vote Next Month on FM6 “Franken” Stations

Rosenworcel calls it "preserving established local programming"

Text has been updated with  new information.

“Franken FM” radio stations are about to get clarity on their future.

The Federal Communications Commission will consider their fate at its meeting in July. It will vote on a proposal to allow existing FM6 stations, which operate just below the regular FM band, to continue providing their analog radio service by authorizing them as ancillary or supplementary services.

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel listed it as an agenda item for the July meeting. Seeming confident in its passage, she described the vote as the FCC “preserving established local programming for radio audiences.” Only the stations with current STAs would be grandfathered.

Opponents including some broadcasters have said that low-power television stations on Channel 6 were never intended to act as FM radio stations. But the National Association of Broadcasters supports grandfathering the 14 FM6 stations.

The nickname Franken FM is a reference to Frankenstein’s monster, which was stitched together unnaturally. FM6 stations are the low-power digital television stations whose audio can be heard on many radios at 87.75 MHz — just below the official FM broadcast band — and which are essentially operating as FM stations. Thirteen stations had special temporary authority as of last year.

The commission has said that nearly 30 FM6 stations existed prior to the digital TV transition. Many in the industry expected the question of Franken FMs to go away once LPTVs were required to go digital in the summer of 2021, because the digital portion of their signals could no longer be received by FM radios. However some FM6 stations sought to continue in the new digital TV age, arguing that they provide an important service.

The commission opened a notice of proposed rulemaking on this issue a year ago; at the time it asked whether to grandfather the existing stations; whether to allow future FM6 operations beyond those that currently have special temporary authority; and whether to license additional NCE FM stations on 82–88 MHz in areas where Channel 6 LPTV and full-power stations are not operating, an idea that had been proposed by NPR.

The NAB subsequently told the FCC: “Loyal audiences have developed around some FM6 stations during this period and NAB believes permanent authorization of those established services is warranted and would serve the public interest.”  It also proposed a minor tweak to require the 13 FM6 stations to operate on 87.7 MHz in order to give licensees the opportunity to improve analog FM6 reception while maintaining ATSC-3.0 compatibility.

The pending order would not repurpose any Channel 6 spectrum for FM services in areas where Channel 6 is not being used to provide TV service, as some had hoped.

The proposed order is available online.