REC Networks Looks at LPFM’s Past and Future

REC Founder Michelle Bradley says “LPFM has always been given a raw deal”
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REC Networks jumped into radio in mid-’90s when founder Michelle “Michi” Bradley started tracking radio just as the Telecommunications Act and pirate radio were coming on the scene. In the years since then, the advocacy group has become a leading voice for low-power FM. Radio World spoke with Bradley about the ongoing legacy of necessity of Auction 83, the relationship between LPFM and FM translators where it comes to spectrum access, and how the group is still trying to help new community radio stations overcome longstanding roadblocks.

Radio World: What led you to see there was a need for an advocacy group like this?

Michelle Bradley: In the late ’90s, just before and after the FCC originally proposed LPFM, I had noticed a lot of gamesmanship going on, especially where it came to abuse of the FM Table of Allotments. The first filings with the FCC to bear the REC Networks name were related to FM Table of Allotments proceedings [within the areas of Southern California, Arizona and Nevada] where various interests were trying to drop in allotments into areas that did not exist or were otherwise not qualified for allotment purposes.

I was fairly successful in getting some of these allotments denied and to this day, I am still looking out for these.

Then came roadblock after roadblock that was impacting new community radio stations. In the middle of the original LPFM filing windows, we had NAB distributing to Congress these recordings on CD of what a new LPFM station on a third-adjacent channel supposedly would do to existing commercial FM stations. This lobbying effort would eventually turn into the Radio Broadcast Protection Act which would require LPFM stations to protect third-adjacent channel stations and caused a mass dismissal of hundreds of applications on what I called “The St. Patty’s Day Massacre” as it happened on March 17, 2003.

Not much longer after that, the FCC would open a window for new FM translator filings. After 15,000 applications were filed, I coined it “The Great Translator Invasion;” the FCC called it “Auction 83.” This is when I started to track these translator applications. I watched as these translators, most of them belonging to two organizations headed by the same person, were being granted without filing fees (because they were applied for as noncommercial educational), and the resulting construction permits eventually being sold off. A small number of people were making millions on this government giveaway.

[Read: Bradley Digs Deep Into FCC Records]

LPFM has always been given a raw deal. This is because it doesn’t have the money, but policy needs to be about fairness, not who can buy the most spectrum and influence. We also had an FCC that was trying to respond to the many community groups that wanted stations and as a result, they tried to make the LPFM application process as easy as possible. The problem is that they made it too easy, to the service’s detriment.

It is important to understand that under the REC name, I don’t deal solely with LPFM, but I deal with generally with the ability for the individual or small entity to have access to spectrum. I have also advocated on other spectrum issues including amateur radio as well as on telecommunications issues.

REC was never meant to be an “advocacy.” Circumstances caused it to become one.

RW: What are some of the key issues that LPFM and translators are facing today?

Bradley: I feel the main issue right now is the relationship between LPFM and FM translators where it comes to spectrum access.

Because of the attitudes of the 1999-era FCC, LPFM was stuck with distance separation. [Today] you have a disparity between the way that FM translators protect LPFM and vice versa — LPFM stations must use distance separation, translators use contours.

This means that a translator could come in as close as 12 kilometers (app. 7.5 miles) of an LPFM station and specify a directional antenna away from the LPFM station and still protect the LPFM. Looking the other way, that minimum spacing is 39 kilometers (app. 24 miles). Let’s say that translator was 37 kilometers away and still had a directional antenna looking away from the LPFM and the LPFM was losing their site and the new site was 36 kilometers away and because of the translator’s directional antenna, the LPFM station would still not create any contour overlap, the LPFM station can’t move anyway because of minimum distance separation.

This is the translator “short-spacing” issue that was brought up by Prometheus and was a part of the basis of their 998 informal objections they filed to grind the translator application process to a halt.

When Congress passed the Radio Broadcast Protection Act, it stated that FCC must prescribe minimum distance separation for third adjacent channels as well as co-channel, first and second-adjacent channel. When the Local Community Radio Act was signed by President Obama in 2011, the wording was completely changed. In the LCRA wording, Section 2 only required the commission to “provide protections” to co-, first- and second-adjacent channels. In Section 3(b)(1), Congress ordered that the FCC not amend the rules to reduce the minimum distance separations in effect on the date of the enactment of this act between LPFM and full-service FM stations.

Even though this can be interpreted to suggest that the FCC can reduce or eliminate distance separation between LPFM and translators while still prescribing some form of protection (e.g. contours), the FCC kept the status quo and in past letter decisions, misinterpreted the LCRA language in applications attempting to use contours to “short-space” FM translators.

The issue of translator interference, which is currently under-way with MB Docket 18-119 has struck a chord with LPFM stations because of the wording of §74.1204(f) and §74.1203(a), which gives the impression that LPFM stations are not protected from new translators.

REC has filed a Petition for Rulemaking with the FCC to address the translator short-spacing issue in a way that is not disruptive to the processing of pending FM translator applications. (That Petition for Rulemaking has been assigned RM-11810 and is currently in a comment period until July 19.)

RW: Your website is a mix of quick news briefs and late-breaking data right from the FCC. Can you tell me about your priorities when it comes to keeping the industry appraised of what’s going on?

Bradley: The REC website consists of many resources, both interactive and static that have resulted from nearly 20 years of collected data. My personal love of radio and radio history can also be found in some aspects of the REC websites such as the REC Radio History Project portion of FCCdata.org. REC has been about entertainment since day one and we still are. These days, it’s in the form of internet radio stations such as REC-FM, which includes programming available to community radio stations.

The REC website also tracks various rulemaking issues that are of concern to REC and its various advocacy constituents in the LPFM and small broadcaster arenas. I also use the website to start conversations about new concepts such as “alternative spectrum” where I am looking into the potential of using the 26 MHz international shortwave band for domestic use to support community radio in the inner-city. Of course, the website also provides official position statements from REC based on my common-sense analysis of the issues at hand and how those issues would impact the REC constituency.

RW: Can you tell us about the tracking of translators and LPFM applications specifically. Is this something you’ve been doing from the beginning? What is the benefit of this kind of information?

Bradley: The only real tracking of FM translator applications REC has ever performed was related to the applications filed during the 2003 Great Translator Invasion (Auction 83) filing window and that tracking was centered mainly around the millions that various organizations in Twin Falls, Idaho, made during that window.

REC did track LPFM applications during both the 2000–2001 window series and the 2013 filing windows. This tracking was done to show the success of the window and to assist applicants who may have been mutually exclusive. This tracking was also used to determine why applications were dismissed in order to determine shortcomings in the rules that could either be changed or something that applicants in a future window will need to watch out for.

I love data and I love working with data. Currently, the REC database has 250 tables including data from the FCC, Canada, Australia, the U.K. and Ireland as well as many manually maintained tables including comprehensive broadcast data for Japan. Much of this data can be viewed through FCCdata.org.

RW: What would you like our readership to know about the work that your organization does?

Bradley: There are two sides of REC, an advocacy and a business. I am not a nonprofit organization, nor do I wish to be. Much of the advocacy I do over the years has been from out of pocket and I get occasional donations in the tip jar but I also do help LPFM, small FM stations and stations with translators with professional FCC filing services. During the Auction 99 and 100 windows, I had the pleasure of working with several small family-owned and small group-owned AM stations, many in rural areas. To me, these rural AM stations are just as much community radio as an LPFM in Portland, Oregon.

RW: Is there anything else to know about LPFM, translators or other radio groups — anything that’s low-flying on the radar or of key interest?

Bradley: I think it is very important for the readership to know that the actions of other groups during the month of May 2018 do not represent all who support LPFM. In fact, it was a small minority.

Because LPFM is segmented, there is no national organization like NAB, NFCB, NRB, ARRL, etc. to represent the full LPFM service. I was at the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters conference when those objections were filed and I found myself spending the first day of the conference distracted by the issue and having to do damage control to immediately separate REC from these objections. I ran into LPFM station representatives at both the NASB and then at the Dayton Hamvention that took place that weekend who had some opinions about the objections.

I do not subscribe to the rhetoric that “full service FM is out to destroy LPFM” and I surely hope that others do not subscribe to any rhetoric of “LPFM is out to destroy translators” because of the recent events.

I am hoping that the aftermath of the objection filing will pass and we can move forward. Many LPFM stations exist because the people who run them just love radio and they want to keep a local voice in their community. If you have supported your local LPFM stations in the past with advice, old gear, etc., please continue to show your support.

Right now, we have two big issues on the front-burners for radio, the translator interference rules and the Notice of Inquiry related to the C4 class of service and the proposed changes to §73.215. All of these issues will also have impacts to LPFM stations.

Let’s all work together to make better radio for all.

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