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Prometheus Petitions FCC to Slow the AM Translator Train

LPFM advocacy group says the latest rule change is capricious and could cause irreparable harm to low-power broadcasters

A key proponent of the low-power FM service is trying to slow the AM radio translator train, worried about the harm a recent rule change might cause to LPFMs.

Prometheus Radio Project on Monday petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to issue “an emergency partial stay” of the change it adopted last month. Prometheus wants the FCC to freeze any processing of translator applications that take advantage of the change.

As we reported last month, the change will give 2,000 or so U.S. AM radio stations that rebroadcast on FM translators more flexibility in locating their FM signals. The FCC expanded the site limitations where such translators can rebroadcast their source AMs.

“The new provision is currently scheduled to become effective on April 10, 2017,” Prometheus reminded the FCC. “There will be hundreds, perhaps even thousands of translator applications filed immediately thereafter, as evidenced by the trade press heading proclaiming ‘AM Broadcasters — April 10 Is Christmas for You.’ Ordinarily, unopposed translator applications are granted within weeks of filing.”

LPFMs and translators have been competing interests on the FM dial for years as the numbers of both have proliferated and as translators have become an end to themselves in many cases. (Consider that there are 1,678 LPFM licenses and 7,253 translators and boosters on the U.S. FM band, according to FCC data gathered by Radio World. Fifteen years ago, the LPFM service was just starting, and there were 3,678 translators/boosters.) An example of how this debate plays out can be seen in the graphic at the bottom of this page, as posted by Prometheus in January under the headline “A History of Encroachment on LPFMs.”

But the ascendancy of a new FCC chairman who ardently backs AM “revitalization” through expanding and easing rules for AM translators is putting new pressure on that dynamic.

“The premature grant of new translator applications will cause immediate and irreparable harm to many of the Low Power FM licensees Prometheus has advised and assisted and to their listeners, whose rights are ‘paramount’ under the First Amendment,” the organization argues in its petition.

“Incumbent LPFM stations will thereafter be severely limited in seeking to relocate within their communities of service because these new FM translators will box in or short-space them. If, as is frequently the case, LPFM licensees lose their transmitter location and must relocate, they will be forced to shut down or to relocate to a distance that could preclude them from reaching their established community audience.”

Prometheus and others, it said, “intend to seek reconsideration.” They argued that order violates the Administrative Procedure Act and is arbitrary and capricious.

“The Order’s elimination of a set distance limitation for locating FM translators was not a logical outgrowth of the Commission’s Further Notice for Proposed Rulemaking, which proposed only a modest modification of the distance limitation,” it wrote. Even the Office of Management and Budget shares this view, it argued, “because it determined that the final version of the Order deviated so substantially from the proposal that its preapproval under the Paperwork Reduction Act was deemed insufficient and directed the commission to resubmit the Order for further review.”

Prometheus argues that the Order is also does not address or resolve “the adverse impact that the order will have on LPFM and its inconsistency with the goals of the Local Community Radio Act,” and “incorrectly equates commercial AM radio service with community-based non-commercial radio.”

It argued that others will not be substantially harmed if a stay is granted. It also said that when the FCC first implemented LPFM services, the commission imposed a freeze on the grant of translator applications while it assessed the circumstances. “Similar action is needed here.”