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FM Translator Roulette Begins

Experts handicap which apps will survive winnowing; LPFMs await their chance

Predicted coverage of pending FM translator applications in an area of Idaho. Image provided by du Treil, Lundin & Rackley Inc.

(Click to Enlarge)

WASHINGTON — The FCC has dismissed about half of the applications remaining from the 2003 FM translator window. Analysts are now trying to predict how many survivors will win approval, and speculating about the impact on future low-power opportunities.

The commission in February dismissed approximately 3,000 translator proposals from Auction 83. It said some entrants had failed to submit selection lists or show that their applications fell within new FCC caps. The agency planned to issue further dismissals due to missing, defective or inadequate technical showings, and began doing so later in February.

These actions come after a final rulemaking in December that expanded the low-power FM service and will result in a new filing window for LPFMs come October. The FCC called that decision a compromise between the interests of LPFM advocates and translator applicants, one that will allow the two services to complement each other.

But some translator advocates were disappointed. Even though the commission established a cap of 70 translator applications, increasing its limit from earlier proposals, supporters criticize restrictions that could limit new translators in the top 150 markets (see sidebar).

Of approximately 3,000 translator applications that remain from 2003, many are in medium and small markets, according to data compiled by Skywaves Consulting LLC, which is active in FM facility upgrades and run by engineer and former station owner Dave Doherty. Skywaves found that Educational Media Foundation holds the only remaining application for Los Angeles, while CSN International has the single remaining application for Chicago. River Vale Media Foundation holds the only translator applications for Queens and Manhattan in New York City.

Skywaves’ data shows that Clear Channel holds 30 translator applications, also mostly in small and rural markets.

Some organizations with big translator plans are feeling the impact of the FCC actions. Radio Assist Ministry had 729 applications dismissed while RAM’s sister organization Edgewater Broadcasting had 565 dismissals, according to LPFM advocate REC Networks. Each has 70 apps left pending as of late February.

RW’s attempts to reach officials from those two companies for comment were unsuccessful.


At the heart of the translator proceedings has been the large number of unprocessed applications left over from 2003. The commission said it received 13,377 translator applications at the time, and subsequently issued 3,476 authorizations before it issued a freeze. Since that time, the number of pending applications fell for various reasons, but still stood around 6,000 as of the end of last year.

The FCC has said it hopes to complete its translator winnowing process before the LPFM filing window this fall.

“My guess is, in the end, maybe around 1,000 construction permits will be issued,” said Bob du Treil Jr., president of engineering consultancy du Treil Lundin & Rackley Inc.

Demand for FM translators, which rebroadcast signals of primary AM or FM stations on different frequencies, has increased since the commission in 2009 began allowing some AMs to use them to rebroadcast programming as a means to mitigate AM coverage problems. The power level may not be great — maximum effective radiated power for any FM translator is 250 watts, according to the FCC — but translators can provide AMs with access to valuable FM spectrum as well as enhanced nighttime presence.

“Demand [for translators] will continue to be high because of the greater interest and need for translators for both AM and FM facilities,” du Treil said.

However, a translator hopeful seeking to pursue more than one application in a top 150 market now must show that any additional applications will not preclude LPFM opportunities the FCC has identified, said David Oxenford of law firm Wilkinson Barker Knauer.

“This is a disappointment for some broadcasters,” said Oxenford. “There has always been concern that some of these caps have been somewhat arbitrary. The FCC has made it difficult to take advantage of any opportunities created by the eventual increases they granted in the caps.” He represents Educational Media Foundation, which had 297 applications prior to the dismissals and is now down to 70.

The limits will make it more difficult for commercial broadcasters to find translator opportunities, he predicted.

“Some of the companies that filed the most applications have also been some of the most willing to sell translator licenses once they got them. By placing limits on the big filers, there won’t be as many channels available now.”

Oxenford, who like du Treil expects around 1,000 translator CPs to be issued, believes years will pass before another translator filing window opens.


Some analysts view the translator limits as a defeat for broadcasters “in the sense that one of the most immediate needs for broadcasters and the radio listening public is to revitalize the radio service that is now provided by hundreds of AM stations across the United States,” said Womble Carlyle attorney John Garziglia.

“Just about any AM broadcaster would welcome the opportunity to provide service to its listening audience by a re-broadcast on an FM translator.”

Garziglia said that while most broadcasters laud the community service goals stated by LPFM proponents, he feels the low-power debate largely ignored the superb community programming already provided by a majority of stations, many of them AMs.

“The potential for enhanced service over FM translators has been harmed by the FCC’s translator processing delays and caps, in favor of a nascent promise of community-based programming from mostly hobby broadcasters that would like to play radio with an LPFM station.”

The Long Road of the Translator Caps

Recent FCC action settled the long-running issue of what to do with thousands of pending FM translator applications dating to a translator window that opened 10 years ago.

The commission in December finalized a national cap of 70 translator applications per entity, provided that no more than 50 of those are in the top 150 radio markets. It also will allow companies to only pursue no more than three applications in a given market.

In earlier proposed rulemakings, the FCC outlined a cap of translators at 10 pending applications per entity, calling this an effort to safeguard the integrity of its filing window process and preserve spectrum for LPFMs. That limit was never adopted, and subsequent rulemaking proposals followed. The agency eventually bumped the cap number to 50 before finally settling on the caps described above.

A few broadcast entities held large numbers of applications from the 2003 window, including the commonly-owned Radio Assist Ministry and Edgewater Broadcasting, with a total of 4,219 applications, according to agency records. Those entities combined received 1,046 grants before the processing freeze.

The initial translator window produced 13,377 applications; the FCC subsequently issued 3,476 authorizations before it froze the process. By late 2012, the total number of remaining outstanding applications had declined to around 6,000.

“There was some natural attrition I think,” said Womble Carlyle attorney John Garziglia. “Various applicants affirmatively dismissed applications because they no longer fit into their plans or conflicted with others they had filed. Some grew tired of waiting and developed other plans. It’s also possible some of the mass filers dumped scores of applications at once. That would account for a substantial number.”

It was from that remaining 6,000 that the FCC began dismissing in February.

He said it’s impossible to forecast the number of translators that will be granted, given such considerations as the new caps, LPFM preclusion showings and long-form application and settlement window processes.

Another legal observer, Fletcher Heald & Hildreth attorney Harry Cole, doubts that many applications in the top 150 markets will survive to be granted to licensees. “It’s possible that the engineers will prove my gut wrong, but I’m not optimistic.”

However, some LPFM observers applauded what they see as the FCC’s recent decisiveness in handling the translator backlog as expediently as possible.

“It has been speculated for some time by many LPFM applicants that there was a power grab underway, spearheaded by some of the full-power stations,” said Eric Hoppe, owner of Progressive Concepts, a broadcast equipment supplier that serves the FM and LPFM market.

“It appeared that the full-power stations had filed for multiple translator applications in an attempt to squeeze out what otherwise would be available frequencies for the LPFM market.” Hoppe anticipates the recent translator action will help usher in the long-awaited LPFM filing window this fall.

“Clearly the FCC’s move to establish caps for the number of translator applications for a single applicant within a given market will go a long way to solving this problem” for the future of low-power FMs, he said.

The FCC first authorized FM translators in 1970. Prior to the 2003 filing window, it had licensed 3,818 FM translators and boosters nationwide, according to the commission’s data. As of the end of 2012, there were 6,075. Its database does not distinguish between translators and boosters, which also rebroadcast but are on the same frequency as the source FM station.