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What Next for Low-Power FM?

Prometheus' Tenth Year, and Radio's Year of Reckoning With LPFM

The Prometheus Radio Project builds radio stations with civil rights groups, environmentalists and neighborhood organizations — people who think the mainstream media is doing so little to cover their interests that they are ready to go out and start stations themselves and volunteer their time to do it.

One station we worked with, Pineros Y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, used to pay $300 an hour back in the early ’90s to a commercial owner to get an hour a week on the air to talk to the hardworking strawberry pickers of Woodburn, Ore.

After a nudge from the strawberry grower whose fields PCUN members were working in, this group was thrown off the air as “too controversial” by the station owner. PCUN realized that they would always be at the mercy of the big guys as long as they were “renting” the airwaves, so they applied for an LPFM license when the FCC opened an application window in 2001.

When years later PCUN finally got their license approved and built their own low-power station, they saw that freedom of speech in this country was more than just another “sidewalk paved with gold” story about America — it could be the real thing- and something that could make a difference to their community.

Stations like these are a glimmer of hope for the local in a world of increasing consolidation of ownership and syndication.


©Jacques-Jean Tiziou/ Just as we don’t only have a federal government, but also state governments and cities and towns and school boards, we should not only have big media — we also need a mix of locally responsive small media, and a healthy non-commercial media sector.

Though every American does have one-300 millionth say in who is the president, and that is important, we would all have a lot bigger say in the decisions of our local school board, our zoning commission, our city councils if we had a media that was scaled appropriately to cover these things and inform people about the issues.

The same goes for culture — every town in America has someone as talented as Britney Spears (if not more so) but they stay invisible even in their own towns because of the way the airwaves are owned and operated.

The Prometheus Radio Project, our wacked-out and subversive bunch of radio pirates turned radio engineers turned media policy advocates, recently noted our 10th anniversary.

We’ve forced our way into an industry that didn’t want us, an industry in a pathetic slow death dance as competitors slice away at radio’s business model with a thousand different tiny gashes. At the same time, we’ve done our part to revive the medium of radio for many communities that had been overlooked by the powers that be.

We hear a lot of old-timers who look down on LPFM and then they whine about the good old days when radio was live and local. Funny. That’s exactly what our stations have been trying to bring back.

What will our 11th year hold? We have three big plans.

Finally Pass the Local Community Radio Act — This legislation essentially gives the FCC back authority over the granting of LPFM licenses. Even though the MITRE study was completed back in 2003 and found that the FCC could allocate low-power radio licenses with little cause for concern, we are still waiting for legislation to pass. The LPFM legislation has many supporters in Congress, but has so far been corked up by one or two friends of the NAB in high places. The leadership has changed, though. And both President Obama and Sen. McCain were co-sponsors on low-power FM legislation. It is time for the NAB to cut their backroom shenanigans and focus on issues of actual importance to broadcasters rather than working behind the scenes to bottle up progress on LPFM.

Straighten Out the Translator vs. LPFM Situation — No one wants it to end more than us; but it can not end without justice.

Unfortunately, while waiting for congressional action on LPFM, the FCC opened a window for “translators” in 2003. Translators are repeater stations that use the same type of transmitters as LPFM stations and fit in similar available spectrum slots. There were close to 15,000 applications, including approximately 4,000 nationwide applications from a single religious network in Idaho.

While Congress had frozen the FCC’s authority to distribute LPFM licenses to new entrants, incumbent broadcasters used the opportunity of the delay to apply to expand their coverage. Shockingly, incumbents and networks applied for translators on the very same channels that the National Association of Broadcasters had claimed LPFMs would cause interference.

Virtually every viable spot for an urban LPFM was applied for in 2003 — as a translator. Low-power radio advocates cried foul — while Congress had asked for further study of LPFM interference issues, they had no intention to give out these channels to existing broadcasters while the results of the study were being analyzed. After non-competing applications for rural translators were distributed, the FCC froze further processing of translators. However, competing (urban) applications are still awaiting resolution. Many of the channels that LPFMs have been patiently waiting for have not yet been distributed, though they have been applied for.

In the fall of 2007, low-power advocates convinced the FCC to take some limited steps to help with low-power frequency availability. The FCC established a cap on granting no more than 10 more applications per entity (some had received many hundreds of licenses already).

This action was helpful, but really just a start to addressing the problem. The FCC needs to reorder priority between local groups and national networks. The current regulations establish that between LPFM and translators, whoever comes first gets the channel. Translator applicants got an opportunity to “cut the line” while LPFMs were waiting for the opportunity to apply in urban areas. This can be fixed easily if the FCC establishes that priority for using a frequency will be granted to local applicants seeking to operate a single, first station over chains of translators belonging to incumbent broadcasters.

Fix the Encroachment Mess — Low-power stations can be bumped at will by full-power stations. We’ve been willing to compromise, and move out of the way of full-power stations as long as there is an equivalent channel we can move to. In situations where the low-power station is going to be swept off the air just to allow some corporation to make a fast buck by moving their broadcast properties closer to an urban market, we have had to take a stand. The PCUN farmworker station was encroached within a month of getting on the air, and was only saved by some of the new interim procedures that the FCC agreed to in late 2007.

How does it hurt?

So now you’ve heard the nefarious LPFM plot.

Radio, ask yourself: How is this going to hurt you if low-power advocates succeed?

  • • In big cities there will be a handful of tiny new neighborhood radio stations on the dial, none of which compete for your market share a tenth as much as satellite radio or iPods.
  • • You may only be able to repeat your signal with translators (in the top urban markets) dozens of times instead of hundreds of times.
  • • If you want to change your format, move out of the small town you have served for 30 years to move a little closer and try to catch some of the population of a major urban area with some “outside the contour” coverage, you may need to take into account some of the live, local low-power stations that might be in the way of your scheme.

The NAB would like you to think it is out there slaying dragons to protect your business. But for real: Does any of this make an iota of difference to your station? What are you getting for your money when you pay your NAB dues?

Everyone in radio knows that LPFM has never asked much. There are people who started in low-power radio stations who are now SBE-certified radio engineers. There are people who started at low-power radio stations who have passed the communications law bar. There are even a number of people who lost their radio industry jobs and have ended up making a modest living running LPFMs.

There’s no gold in the LPFM hills, but it is amazing how far a little underwriting money from the community can go if you don’t have to send half of it to San Antonio!

One sign of the times is that the NAB lately has even tried to justify various deregulatory favors they’ve asked for by talking about how they will help LPFM stations. They certainly didn’t ask our opinion about what would be in our interest, but their concern for our well-being is … umm, touching.

One of these days, we look forward to some clever person over at NAB realizing that it is time to make peace on this issue and bring LPFM stations into the fold.

Radio, it’s time that you came to terms with the bastard stepchild that you tried to smother in the cradle. We fought for LPFM to get the people back in to radio stations, after the corporations tossed them all out. LPFM was sold to people in this profession by the lobbyists as a threat. Looking closer after 10 years, you can see it is actually an opportunity to bring some new life to radio, and to reconnect radio to some of its best aspirations.

The author is director of electromagnetism and co-founder of the Prometheus Radio Project. He has been an organizer of 11 “radio barn-raisings” in which a station is built by hundreds of volunteers in three days, and he has helped to build numerous other LPFMs. He is an SBE Certified Broadcast Radio Engineer. Pete Tridish is a pseudonym.

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