Nearly Six Years After Launch, LPFM Still Chafes Under Restrictions
WASHINGTON: Hundreds of community groups, churches and schools from the first wave of low-power FM licensees have their stations on the air. Many are in rural areas of the country with a reach of approximately 3.5 miles and broadcast at 100 watts.
In November, 690 LPFMs were on the air. A total of 1,260 construction permits had been granted, according to FCC data. The commission has processed 3,160 of the more than 3,200 applications filed in the original windows in 2000-02. Proponents originally had hoped that there might be thousands of stations.
"LPFM has been extremely successful to this point in the limited areas where it has been allowed. Still to be addressed is how to get more of the stations on in urban areas," said Pete Tridish, one of the founders of the Prometheus Radio Project, a non-profit resource center that helps guide LPFM broadcasters through the launch process.
"We feel the FCC has done a very good job of clearing out the backlog. However, they should adopt some form of flexibility to work around the current unjust limitations and encourage growth."
The LPFM service was launched Jan. 20, 2000. It turns six next month.
An FCC spokeswoman said the agency is pleased with the progress of the service.
"LPFM operators are telling us how much their communities rely on the information they are broadcasting. It has opened a wealth of local opportunities and voices that otherwise would have a hard time being heard," the spokeswoman said.
Former FCC Chairman Bill Kennard, who pushed for the LPFM service, declined to comment on the program's effectiveness.
The Media Bureau hoped to begin discussions on proposals to expand and possibly relax LPFM rules before the end of the year. Filed comments were due in late September.
Low-power advocates continue to push the FCC to relax rules and launch an additional window to accept LPFM applications.
"We hope the FCC will decide to agree with us and that LPFM stations should have reasonable options and shouldn't just be relegated to a handful of small towns. LPFMs should be able to use contour overlap rules when there are spaces between protected contours of full-power stations that could be used to introduce new low-power FM service," Tridish said.
Nickolaus Leggett, one of the original petitioners for a low-power FM service in 1997, said, "LPFM has been worth the work and effort to make it happen. There was some disappointment for some that several evangelical groups grabbed up so many of the LPFMs. I think it just needs fine-tuning, and there is a need for another window of application."
Leggett is also one of five petitioners asking the FCC to expand the service to the AM band, a move opposed by NAB. The broadcast association said the commission felt the AM band already was too crowded and interference-prone when it started the LPFM service and that situation hasn't improved.
As reported last spring (RW, March 16), the potential glut of thousands of new FM translators has LPFM supporters concerned about future growth of the relatively new low-power service, especially in heavily populated areas.
LPFM advocates believe the service should be afforded higher priority than translators; both services are treated as secondary services by the commission. However, translators are licensed to repeat programming, sometimes from hundreds of miles away, while LPFMs serve only their local communities, the low-power advocates say.
Proponents want the FCC to give LPFM stations primary status and give them precedence over translator applications.
Opponents note that translator applications are pending while no open "windows" to file more LPFM applications are on tap. To give LPFMs priority over translators would be unfair, they feel.
The agency needs to address the translator issue, Leggett said, because of the natural conflict between the two secondary services.
Translators vs. LPFMs
"LPFMs broadcast local content to a local audience. (LPFM) was intended as an outlet for the little guy, as a voice of local democracy. Translators, are by nature, only relaying broadcast material from outside a community," said Leggett, who works as a political analyst.
Still to be determined is the status of third-adjacent-channel protection for existing full-power stations. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., earlier this year re-introduced a bill that would drop the protections and open up more opportunities for LPFMs. The NAB, NPR and several large radio groups continue to argue against such a move, saying tighter slots would create harmful interference.
In 2003, the commission fielded nearly 11,000 FM translator applications. The FCC has issued nearly 3,400 CPs for FM translators. Approximately 7,000 applications are pending, according to FCC data.
According to its comment filing to the FCC, the Prometheus Radio Project stated, "The translator (filing) window has had an enormous impact for those who would like to start a low-power station in the future and for those who applied but were denied. The congressional imposition of third-adjacent protection requirements for LPFM stations, along with the unfortunate timing of the 2003 translator window, has utterly decimated the opportunities for LPFM stations in the areas with the highest demand."
The vast majority of Prometheus' clients have been pleased with their results since putting their LPFMs on the air, Tridish said, while few stations have failed.
How does Prometheus measure accomplishments?
An LPFM's success, he said, "depends on the organization, what they do with their signals and their fundraising and volunteer efforts. It definitely has been a resounding success when it comes to serving the public interest in rural areas."
Most LPFMs faced a variety of challenges getting on the air, from financing and construction, to programming and promotion, said Sakura Saunders, a volunteer at the low-power radio station KDRT(LP) in Davis, Calif., which has been on the air since early 2004.
"Starting from scratch, everything has been a challenge. Building the studio, building and maintaining a Web site, fundraising and training volunteers, all takes a lot of time," Sanders said. "Then you have to get people to take you seriously."
Saunders said KDRT, which has its own underwriting director, purchased new transmission equipment, but saved some money by buying used studio equipment during startup.
Saunders believes local content, possibly combined in some way with the Internet, will fuel future growth of her station and others like it.
"With the Internet such a widely used venue for dissemination, I feel that LPFM's strength is to first utilize the Internet to find interesting content to project to its own community, then to produce local content for the LPFM and the Internet," Sanders said.
Marc Jones, manager of broadcast operations for the Maryland Transit Authority, which holds the license for WMVK(LP) in Perryville, Md., said the response of listeners to his station's mix of transit information and music has been positive.
"We provide a transit information service for commuters using the MARC Train and bus service and work in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. It provides a critical source of information that directly impacts the comfort of the commuters," Jones said.
The MTA is interested in growing its LPFM efforts, Jones said, which would enable the state agency to form a quasi-network of stations broadcasting transit information.
"We would love to expand and add similar services to other areas of the state. (WMVK) has been a tremendous way to provide information to our customers," Jones added.
When the MTA or other applicants might be able to apply for additional LPFMs is hard to determine. It remains unclear if the FCC is getting closer to settling the question of how many LPFM frequencies will be available if the third-adjacent protections are dropped, said observers. The agency would need approval from Congress to research how many more LPFM slots would open. An interference study conducted by Mitre Corp. in 2003 recommended that the third-adjacent protection be lifted.
NAB didn't agree with the Mitre conclusions. Dennis Wharton, NAB senior vice president for corporate communications, said, "The NAB position has not changed. We are still concerned that eliminating the protections will be a recipe for interference for radio listeners."
Tridish said the bill re-introduced by McCain to address third-adjacent channel protections has been "bogged down because of hurricane relief legislation taking precedent."
The FCC has said interference fears of large broadcasters have proved unfounded and has urged Congress to relax separation requirements.
"We've had very few complaints filed by full-service FM stations (regarding interference). It appears LPFM permittees are staying ahead of some interference issues by filing modification applications to get off channels that become possible interference problems as a result of full-service modifications," said the spokeswoman.
The commission has asked several LPFMs to change frequencies as a result of full-power stations making changes that cause overlaps in contours, she said.
Do you work at an LPFM? Has your broadcast market been affected by one? Share your experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nearly Six Years After Launch, LPFM Still Chafes Under Restrictions