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Peter Doyle Prepares to Depart FCC

Audio chief reflects on busy tenure including process reform, translators, AM and LPFM issues

WASHINGTON — One could argue that, since the turn of the 21st century, no person has spearheaded more FCC policy affecting U.S. radio broadcasters than Peter Doyle. This is a bold statement, but commission watchers say it would be hard to make a case against it.

Peter Doyle

Doyle, 66, has been the chief of the Media Bureau’s Audio Division since 2001.

There have been several high-level departures in the past year but probably none better known in radio than Doyle, familiar through his work in shaping and implementing audio division policy. He retired from full-time work in mid-January but will continue in a part-time role for up to six months to aid in the transition to a new division chief.

The Audio Division of the Media Bureau licenses commercial and noncommercial educational AM, FM, FM translator and FM booster radio services, as well as the noncommercial educational low-power FM service; it also provides legal analysis of broadcast, technical and engineering radio filings and recommends action on applications, requests for waivers and other pleadings, according to the commission website.

Doyle has been the division’s active and visible face. A former legal adversary praised him for his “sharp critical intelligence.” Another observer remarked on his ability to “see both sides, enabling him to serve broadcasters’ licensing interests while at the same time serving the public interest.” Doyle has directed a wide range of rulemakings that affected radio, from low-power FM initiatives and terrestrial digital audio broadcasting to AM revitalization and the recent proliferation of FM translators. He has appeared numerous times at industry conferences to explain commission processes and answer broadcaster questions.

In a recent bio for a convention appearance, the National Association of Broadcasters described his work thus: “[Doyle] has been a major contributor to several rulemaking proceedings to streamline broadcast application processing and licensing procedures, reform FM allotment rulemaking procedures and Section 307(b) processing policies, initiate electronic filing and increase flexibility in the radio technical rules. Recent policy efforts include rulemakings to implement the Local Community Radio Act and promote a vital community radio service, to permit AM stations to use FM translators and, more generally, to revitalize the AM service, to raise terrestrial radio digital power levels and to promote the growth of tribally owned radio stations.”

The veteran communications attorney reflected on his FCC tenure with Radio World.

Radio World: Give us a quick overview of what the Audio Division chief does.
Peter Doyle: The job has to meld together the legal and technical issues when it comes to licensing. The Audio Division is responsible for licensing of all radio stations, whether new, modifications or renewals. The Audio Division also takes the lead on most radio-centric rulemakings, like AM revitalization. So getting the legal and engineering teams here to collaborate and work together is our top responsibility.

RW: What role does the chief fill when it comes to making policy and setting policy?
Doyle: I like to say it’s up to the Audio Division to propose, and up to the commission to dispose. It’s really a wonderful collaborative process. [The division] has been encouraged to take a bottom-up approach; and if we see things that can make a difference, we have been encouraged to make it. We get direction from all sorts of places though, including the general counsel’s office, who sometimes tell us what we can and can’t do.

RW: Does the job differ as U.S. presidents and FCC chairs come and go?
Doyle: Honestly, my job has not changed much based on who is chairman. My first challenge as division chief is figuring out how to work effectively with my bureau chief and his or her management style. The one notable exception is Chairman Pai, who has been very supportive of new radio policy initiatives and licensing matters, more interested than any chairman since Jim Quello back in the early 1990s.

RW: What do you think your FCC legacy is when it comes to radio broadcasting?
Doyle: A few things really.

Doyle talks about FCC rules at the 2014 Radio Show in Indianapolis as part of a panel with Al Kenyon of FEMA , left, and Nancy Ory of Lerman Senter.
Photo by Jim Peck

We’ve made tremendous strides in reducing our backlogs, and in particular with applications for review. We’ve taken a backlog of 160 applications for review and we’ve taken that down to zero.

I’m also very proud of the implementation of the Local Community Radio Act. Congress, as you may recall, broke a logjam between translators and LPFM stations in terms of access to remaining spectrum in 2010; and in very vague language they told us to take care of both services.

We undertook very detailed engineering in over 150 markets and found where the spectrum was and came up with licensing policy that in the end resulted in robust licensing for both low-power stations and FM translators.

I think another great accomplishment the past few years has been the soft migration of two-thirds of all AM stations to the FM band with FM translators. It’s been an enormously successful transition.

A smaller thing has been the creation of a tribal priority for licensing. We’ve been able to develop a model to fast-track licensing in grossly underserved Indian country. We have licensed some full-power stations and dozens of LPFM stations in just the past few years.

And last is a process change when it comes to a station changing its community of license. It used to take a rulemaking to do that, and it was slow and tedious. We overhauled that and created a whole new way for stations to better reach and serve listeners. It was a very streamlining reform.

RW: What does your departure mean for the remainder of the AM revitalization rulemaking?
Doyle: Oh, it’s a team process. It will go forward quite well.

We have some final strands to work out. We have a significant technical issue in terms of whether or not to tweak our nighttime protections. Clearly the initial formulations drew a lot of criticism. It might be that it’s something that is just not feasible. But at least we are trying to kick the tires and figure out if there are ways to let local stations improve their nighttime service without materially impacting Class A and Class B station nighttime coverage. We believe it’s an issue worth looking at.

RW: Have you worked on the “modernization of media” initiative?
Doyle: Yes, I’m trying to be a contributor. I have my list and I have shared that, but I really don’t want to get ahead of the team.

It certainly was time to take a look at the rules. The first couple of things out of the box — discontinuing the public file requirements in buildings people never visit, to the elimination of the main studio rule — are good places to start. And lifting the cross-ownership ban.

I’m guessing that when we get to the end of the process, people will look back and say these are all commonsense things and that a cleanup was highly warranted.

RW: We are at least a decade into HD Radio. What do you think the FCC did right during the process of establishing digital audio broadcasting, and are there regrets on your part?
Doyle: What we did right was let the [National Radio Systems Committee] do wonderful work, and for us to support that work and come up with what was really a de facto standard. Really, the praise goes to them. This was a spectrum recapture initiative, a voluntary one.

I was hoping for better penetration of receivers at this point, but certainly in major markets the group owners have done some wonderful things. We could have started with some higher power levels in the sidebands, but people wanted to move carefully and not impact the technical integrity of the analog service.

One of the great ancillary benefits of the DAB proceeding has been creating the opportunity using FM translators to rebroadcast those HD2 and HD3 channels in analog. That has promoted greater program diversity for listeners.

Peter Doyle was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where his childhood friends included Chuck Schumer, the future U.S. senator. Doyle graduated cum laude with a juris doctor degree from Georgetown University Law Center in 1985; he holds a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Rochester and a master of arts in philosophy from the University of Virginia.

Peter Doyle at the 2011 Radio Show in Chicago.
Photo by Jim Peck

In the 1980s and early ’90s, Doyle was an associate at Dow, Lohnes & Albertson and at Arter & Hadden. His work included broadcast, wireless cable and cable matters, according to the FCC. He joined the commission in 1995, became assistant deputy chief in 1998 and was promoted to chief of the Audio Division in 2001, succeeding Linda Blair.

A successor as head of the bureau hadn’t been named as of December. A posting on USAJobs, a federal jobs website, for “Supervisory Attorney Advisor (Division Chief) in the Audio Division” ran in the fall. The closing date to apply was in late September; the position’s salary range was given as $131,767 to $161,900 per year.

Doyle and his wife Anita live in Alexandria, Va. They have two grown children and several grandchildren, with another on the way.

RW: Do you still think the iBiquity IBOC standard should be the U.S. standard?
Doyle: Let me put it to you this way: The commission announced that we were going to have a horse race; and one horse showed up. And that horse won. Until there is another horse in the race, I’m not too sure what there is to debate.

RW: At what point did the FCC become aware FM radio was going to be affected as a result of the TV channel repack process? In hindsight, should higher priority been placed upon that potential impact?
Doyle: I really haven’t been involved with that and can’t comment. The repack people would have to be the ones to answer that question.

RW: You were in private practice prior to joining the FCC. What advice do you have for attorneys approaching the commission on policy matters?
Doyle: I think we have a very savvy bar right now — very good at representing their clients’ interest.

If you look at our adjudicatory practice we have done outstanding work. The D.C. Circuit [Court] has commented favorably at least three times on staff decisions that have made it that far.

Here’s my one piece of advice: There are times when licensees or objectors seem willing to pursue frivolous issues. And I’m not sure to which end, but I think the record of the division in terms of getting things right, mostly the first time, is good. I guess there could be less litigation on issues that seem to lack merit.

RW: The commission in December announced a window [Jan. 25–31, 2018] for all classes of AMs to file for a new FM translator; so more will be coming on board.Which way is the division leaning with regard to the translator/full-power FM interference resolutions?
Doyle: I don’t know which way it’s leaning. My personal view is that there are problems that we need to fix. The commission will have an opportunity to weigh in on the issue. There’s an application for review that is pending with us and working its way through the process. We should be able to address some aspect of the complaint process from that. I’m not sure if that is a full solution. I think right now we need to think big picture, but I’m not sure that commission is focused on it — other than recognizing how valuable translators are to so many broadcasters and trying to figure out a reasonable way to make them a reliable part of broadcast operations.

RW: Do you ever see a day when demand for new FM stations warrants the allocation of additional spectrum for more opportunities on FM?
Doyle: I see it, but the issue of spectrum reallocation is way above my pay grade. I will say that the recent translator and low-power FM licensing and our ongoing full-power FM auction work, along with the 2007 and 2010 NCE windows, [suggest that] the demand side of the equation seems to be strong and enduring.

One of the biggest surprises for me has been underestimating the demand for FM spectrum. We know tons about the supply side, like how much spectrum there is and where it is and where it’s not; but we leave the demand to the marketplace. And when we have had pools of applications for this and that, inevitably I have been on the low side with my estimates.

RW:How much do you listen to terrestrial radio, and how have your listening habits changed?
Doyle: A bunch. I like news, sports and politics. I consume podcasts and satellite radio. I listen to it all. I’m happy to have so many options.

RW: Leaving aside political and regulatory restraints, if you had three wishes for the Audio Division, what would they be?
Doyle: Hmmm, three wishes.

First, that the Audio Division continues to have the resources it needs to get things done. While we are vastly better in doing our licensing work and far more efficient than when I began, we are working in an era of more limited resources. There is always a fight for IT resources and personnel. I’m not the only retirement in cue, so I hope they can maintain the level of resources needed to operate efficiently.

Second, I hope they can solve the FM translator interference issue. The current process just isn’t working out well. We have injected thousands and thousands of FM translators into the FM band over the past few years. And we have expectations by AM broadcasters and other broadcasters to use these translators to reach listeners and grow their businesses. The current complaint process is very unwieldy. So I’m hoping the commission can better accommodate licensees’ expectations about translator and full-power FM service.

And lastly, I hope the division can continue to be a leader in process reform.

RW: Have you closely followed the search for your replacement? And have you been involved at all?
Doyle: I have shared my views, but the important thing is trying to figure out how it will work after I leave. This is clearly a decision for [Media Bureau Chief] Michelle Carey and Chairman Pai to make. I want to make sure the division remains a vital and happy workplace if key to the process. I’m happy with how the search is being carried out.

RW: If you were to leave a note behind in your desk drawer for your successor, what might it say?
Doyle: I think the key is figuring out which fights are worth fighting and which are not. And being judicious about figuring out what is really going to make the division a responsive unit that can discharge it responsibly. Sometimes the resources that are required just aren’t there to make it worth the fight. The most important thing is making sure the industry know they can count on us to get their sales applications [and] modification applications done, and the adjudicatory process will be fair and predictable and transparent for all interested parties. You can do that, but you have to be careful about the issues you take on.

RW: Plans call for you to remain in a part-time position beginning with the start of the New Year. Do you know how many hours you’ll be putting in?
Doyle: The program I was approved for is a 20-hour a week position for up to six months. I’m here for as long as my successor is happy to see me in the office. And as long as I’m happy to be in the office. As long as those things happen I will stay through the entire six-month process. I love the work I do, but it’s just time to work a little less than full time.

RW: Any final thoughts as you look ahead to sweeping out the office?
Doyle: The management team I worked with every day is outstanding and has been very stable for a long period of time. Jim Bradshaw, deputy chief of engineering, has really been like a co-chief with me the past decade. Lisa Scanlan, Mike Wagner, Rudy Bonacci, Tom Hutton, Nazifa Sawez, Annette Smith, Tom Nessinger and Christine Goepp have been unbelievable to work with. I would not have been able to accomplish much of anything without those folks.