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FCC Reinstates Radio Duplication Rule for Commercial FM Stations

Regulations eliminated four years ago are put back into place

The FCC is reinstating a rule that prohibits the duplication of FM programming beyond a 25% threshold. The commission says the decision serves the public interest by furthering the goals of competition, programming diversity, localism and spectrum efficiency.  

The FCC had eliminated the radio duplication rule for both AM and FM services in 2020, when the agency had a Republican majority. The FCC said, at the time, it believed competition would naturally limit the amount of broadcast duplication.

Released on Monday, the commission’s Order on Reconsideration grants the 2020 Petition for Reconsideration from REC Networks, the musicFIRST Coalition and the Future of Music Coalition requesting that the government agency reinstate the radio duplication rule for commercial FM stations.

The NAB filed an opposition to the petition in 2021.The advocacy group has always opposed the duplication rules, arguing they add unnecessary costs to broadcast operations, which could limit innovation in the face of unprecedented competition.

In the new order the commission says the duplication rule for the FM service remains useful in today’s broadcast climate.

“Specifically, we find that the record does not provide sufficient evidence that the rule, as applied to FM service, has caused or will cause harm to FM licensees, that market forces alone would be sufficient to preserve the rule’s benefits, or that the 25% duplication allowance set forth in the former rule and the potential to seek a waiver to exceed that allowance in the event of special circumstances is insufficient to provide FM licensees with flexibility where needed,” the FCC says.

The FCC says in the order it finds that the radio duplication rule acts as a “useful guide rail in the FM service — where spectrum is in higher demand (than the AM service) by consumers, advertisers and owners — to encourage the diversification of programming on commonly owned FM stations, which then compete in the marketplace for listeners and advertisers.”

Despite any perceived benefits, the commission says the duplication of programming is an inherently inefficient use of spectrum.

In a statement this week, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, voiced her approval of the reinstatement of radio duplication rules for commercial FMs: 

“For decades, the Federal Communications Commission has built its media policies around the values of localism, competition, and diversity. I believe in these values because over history they are the best guideposts we have for communications policymaking,” Rosenworcel wrote.

She continued: “I also believe we can modernize our rules while still honoring these principles. Here we do just that. The rationale for providing AM radio with additional flexibility to duplicate programming does not pertain to FM radio. The economic and signal quality issues are different, and the impact of content duplication is not the same. That is why today we do what we should have done in 2020—work to preserve relief to AM radio based on arguments supported by our record, and work to ensure continued diversity of programming on the FM dial.”

Dissenting were Republican Commissioners Brendan Carr and Nathan Simington. In Carr’s statement, he said radio broadcasters are facing the same economic headwinds as others, while in the background Big Tech companies are taking greater shares of advertising spend and unregulated competitors are pouring into the market. 

“In 2020, the commission voted to end a 1960s-era regulation of FM broadcasters because, as the record showed, competition had long since eroded any justification for the rule. Rather than putting unnecessary regulations back in place, the FCC should be ensuring that America’s broadcasters have the flexibility necessary to compete with their unregulated competitors and serve their local communities,” Carr wrote in his dissent.

Duplication rules date back to 1964 when the commission first limited the duplication of programming by commonly-owned radio stations serving the same local area. At the time, it also prohibited FM stations in cities with populations over 100,000 from duplicating the programming of a co-owned AM station in the same local area for more than 50% of the FM station’s broadcast day. 

The FCC tightened radio duplication rules in 1976 to duplicating only 25% of the average program week of a co-owned AM in the same local area. They were revised further in 1992 limiting the duplication of programming by commonly-owned stations or stations commonly-operated through a time brokerage agreement in the same service (AM or FM) with substantially overlapping signals to 25% of the average broadcast week.

In reinstating the radio duplication rule for commercial FM stations, the commission also found that the existing waiver process is sufficient in addressing the concerns of specific FM stations in unique circumstances.    

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