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FCC Looks Ready to Approve ZoneCasting

Idea of allowing FM geo-targeting for a few minutes each hour is controversial

Suddenly it appears that limited FM geotargeting may soon be allowed by the FCC.

Supporters have called the technology a potential gamechanger. Opponents have warned of seismic consequences for the FM band.

Commissioners Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat, and Brendan Carr, a Republican, issued a joint statement on Wednesday. They said Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is circulating an order and further notice of proposed rulemaking among her colleagues. The order would allow FM broadcasters to air unique content on booster signals for a short time each hour.

With the support of three on the five-member commission, the draft order would seem to have a clear path to approval once it is formally introduced, though its details are not public yet.

The concept of FM geotargeting has been pushed for years by GeoBroadcast Solutions. The company hopes to offer broadcasters a product called ZoneCasting that uses synchronized localized booster transmitters and antennas. Stations would be able to send localized weather alerts and traffic messages or highly localized advertisements to just a portion of their listening areas.

But a change in rules would be needed because boosters are supposed to carry only the same content as their primary stations.

The broadcast industry has been divided on the idea. In 2021 the National Association of Broadcasters came out strongly against geo-targeting. State broadcast associations and a number of individual companies also have expressed concerns about the possible impact.

Opponents worry that geo-targeting may depress ad rates and revenues as advertisers seek to purchase highly localized ads. They say it could lead to cannibalization among stations; cause listener confusion, hurting consumer perceptions of the FM service; and result in unwelcome “red-lining” of certain listeners. They also say it will cause unacceptable interference.

The NAB at one point warned of “potentially seismic risks to the business model of FM radio.” The debate also has been characterized by much acrimony between GBS and the NAB, with one critic describing NAB’s opposition as “savage.”

But in their statement, Starks and Carr said that since the commission proposed the idea in 2020, “[S]mall and independent broadcasters have repeatedly told us that geo-targeting could be a gamechanger. They’ve said the technology could help them stay relevant, and in some cases stay in business, by allowing them to offer hyper-localized content over radio — just as television broadcasters are beginning to do with NextGen TV,” they wrote.

“We’ve also heard that geo-targeting could lift small businesses and community organizations by helping them reach a targeted audience more cost effectively, thereby reducing barriers to the nation’s airwaves and connecting listeners to the content that matters to them the most.”

Starks and Carr thanked Rosenworcel “for moving this proceeding to an order so that broadcasters can implement this technology, to the extent they choose to do so.  Without a doubt, geo-targeting presents a new way of thinking about FM. If radio entrepreneurs want to test new business models and deploy new technologies, the FCC’s rules shouldn’t stand in the way.”

The U.S. Black Chamber of Commerce welcomed the news, calling the pending action “a pivotal order” and “a significant step forward in modernizing radio broadcasting.” President/CEO Ron Busby called it “a needed boost for the broadcasting industry, especially for small and medium-sized broadcasters, many of whom are African American-owned.”

USBC also quoted Jim Winston, president of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters — which became part of USBC Media last year — saying, “Geotargeting technology is not just about modernization; it’s about survival and growth. It’s a tool that can rejuvenate a declining sector while also propelling forward the FCC’s vision of promoting minority broadcasting.”

The USBC added that it was looking forward to “more detailed information on this development, mindful that the finer details are crucial and often reveal complexities not immediately apparent.”

The National Association of Broadcasters declined comment for this story Wednesday evening.

[Find the rest of our stories covering the geo-targeting debate here]