Low-power FM advocates are celebrating a hard-won victory with enactment of the Local Community Radio Act, approved in the last days of the 111th Congress and signed Jan. 4 by President Obama.
The law clears the way for expansion of low-power FM stations, a noncommercial licensing category established by the FCC a decade ago but confined to small markets and rural communities by interference-protection rules demanded by full-power broadcasters. Their transmitter power is limited to 100 watts, reaching from three to five miles.
Approved with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress, the law gives the FCC more flexibility in assigning channels to LPFMs and resolving interference problems with full-power FMs and their translators.
“The thing that people really feel is really a ton of joy,” says Hannah Sassaman, a longtime organizer for Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based group that led a spirited, broad-based and tenacious grassroots campaign to get the bill moving through Congress. “Now there’s going to be thousands of opportunities to license LPFMs in cities and towns.”
Advocates predict as many as 1000 LPFMs could sign on, although the FCC has many issues to resolve before anyone knows how many channels will be available.
“There’s about 800 stations now, and this could at least double that,” said Cheryl Leanza, a longtime advocate for the microstations who now represents the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. “This will vastly expand the number of listeners LPFMs are able to reach, because it allows stations to be licensed in the top 50 markets.”
Anti-interference mileage restrictions that have limited LPFM licensing — the so-called third-adjacent-channel protections — will be eased when the bill takes effect, and the FCC is authorized to assess potential interference with topographic contour-mapping instead of simple mileage between stations on the same or adjacent frequencies.
“The contour method is very good at predicting interference,” said Brandy Doyle, regulatory policy director for Prometheus. “It’s a modern method for licensing stations in all services, and the legislation authorized it for LPFMs.”
“The reality of spectrum availability is that the contour method is the only realistic way that signals will become available,” said Leanza.
Found senators’ secret “holds”
NPR opposed earlier actions to expand LPFM on behalf of member stations, but dropped out of the fight after successfully lobbying for provisions in the House bill approved in December 2009. Commercial radio continued its opposition until it was the last lobby standing against it.
The Local Community Radio Act languished in the Senate for most of last year. With former Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith as president of the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade group persuaded a series of senators to place secret holds on the bill. Prometheus orchestrated a tireless lobbying campaign to ferret out lawmakers blocking the legislation.
“Every time there was a hold, activists would call every single Senate office,” Sassaman said. “Seventy-five percent of the Senate would say, ‘We’re not blocking it.’”
Senators who didn’t respond would hear from constituents who supported the bill, drawn from a diverse grassroots coalition including religious organizations, media reformers and social justice groups.
A Dec. 13 rally outside NAB headquarters in Washington, D.C., was a photo-friendly high point for the campaign. Activists wearing colorful wigs and costumes swung hula hoops and shouted, “Stop making us jump through hoops! Support low-power FM radio and the Local Community Radio Act!” The spectacle was covered by national and Washington-insider media; NAB shortly dropped its opposition and negotiated a compromise.
The law places the burden of resolving interference problems on low-power stations, and explicitly states that full-power stations are higher priority than LPFMs in the pecking order of FM broadcasters. The law decrees equal ranks for LPFMs and FM translators of full-power stations, but the FCC must work out new rules to resolve interference problems between these two classes of stations.
“We’ve accepted these obligations because we think interference is unlikely, and we’re committed to working with full-power stations and the FCC to resolve them in ways that don’t result in taking stations off the air,” Doyle said.
Special provisions protecting radio reading services that air on subcarriers of full-power stations, secured by NPR in the House bill, are now written into law.
After President Obama signed the Local Community Radio Act into law, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski described it as “a big win for radio listeners.”
“Low-power FM stations are small, but they make a giant contribution to local community programming,” Genachowski said. “The FCC will take swift action to open the dial to new low-power radio stations and the valuable local service they provide.”
Primary sponsors of the legislation were Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Lee Terry (R-Neb.).
The FCC approved LPFM as a class of noncommercial service in 2000, giving it secondary status — the same as for translators that repeat full-power stations.
NPR asks FCC to delay, rethink low-power FM, March 2000.
Interference study finds room for more low-power FMs, August 2003.
At five, LPFM takes all comers, 2005. In smaller cities where a less crowded FM dial allows LPFMs to start up, listeners are discovering music, news reports, opinions and esoterica in an array of styles and languages.
House panel endorses compromise that would add LPFM stations, October 2009.
PDF of the final Local Community Radio Act.
Video of Prometheus Radio Project protest at NAB offices.
Prometheus Radio Project “demystifies”/summarizes the Local Community Radio Act.
NAB wasted precious political capital in opposing LPFM expansion, Politico commented three days after activists rallied outside its headquarters