Advocates press FCC to open more channels for LPFMs

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NPR, the National Association of Broadcasters and advocates for low-power radio expressed opposing views to the FCC in a proceeding that will shape the future of the commission’s expanding class of low-power FM broadcasters.

For the second time since it created the LPFM service in 2000, the FCC has been preparing to accept another round of applications from would-be LPFM operators. In March the commission asked broadcasters and other stakeholders to comment on changes that it may implement before granting the next wave of low-power licenses.

The licenses go strictly to noncommercial operators, and so far have permitted stations of only up to 100 watts.

This time the stakes are particularly high for LPFM hopefuls, as the commission expects all available LPFM frequencies may be exhausted in the next application window. “We have determined, based on these studies, that the next LPFM window presents a critical, and indeed possibly a last, opportunity to nurture and promote a community radio service that can respond to unmet listener needs and underserved communities in many urban areas,” the agency said in March.

The FCC asked for feedback on a wide range of proposed changes to LPFM guidelines, including:

  • Should LPFMs in smaller communities be allowed to broadcast at 250 watts?
  • Should the FCC grant waivers allowing some LPFM applicants to squeeze onto the radio dial even closer to full-power stations?
  • Should the FCC require LPFMs to air locally originated programming, and should proposals to air local programming give LPFM applicants an edge in receiving licenses?
  • And should Native organizations applying for LPFMs get special consideration?

Comments to the FCC were due by May 7.

As has often been the case, LPFM advocates diverged in their opinions from groups representing full-power broadcasters, such as NPR and NAB, which urged a more conservative approach.

250-watt stations: This time around, the Prometheus Radio Project, an LPFM advocacy group, urged the FCC to allow 250-watt LPFMs as well as 50-watt LPFMs. The latter proposal would more than double the number of potential LPFM stations, according to an analysis by REC Networks, which also supports LPFM.

NPR countered that the FCC should not allow 250-watt stations because it already licenses full-power Class A stations at that power. “Since an entity can already apply to construct a 250-watt FM broadcast station, there is little justification for creating another class of such stations governed by a different set of rules,” NPR argued.

Second-adjacency waivers: Prometheus also supported the granting of second-adjacent channel waivers. If granted, these waivers would allow an LPFM to broadcast from a frequency just two clicks away from a full-power neighbor — on 91.5 FM, for example, if the full-power stations were at 91.9 FM. Typically, LPFMs must be three clicks away on third-adjacent channels.

Second-adjacent waivers would open enough frequencies to double the number of LPFMs in the top 150 markets, according to Prometheus. The FCC should make such waivers “as available as possible,” Prometheus argued.

Pacifica, the lefty public radio network, would request a second-adjacency waiver to start a community radio station for Spanish-speaking listeners in Los Angeles, wrote Pacifica Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt in a letter to the FCC.

NPR argued that the FCC should only grant second-adjacency waivers when no third-adjacent channels are available. And the NAB said they should be granted “only in truly unusual circumstances.”

“Second-adjacent channel waivers must be rare so as to preserve listeners’ expectations of clear, crisp sound quality from local FM radio stations,” the NAB wrote.

Local programming and staffing: Prometheus asked the FCC to require LPFMs to air 20 hours a week of locally originated programming. Twenty percent of existing LPFMs offer little or no local programming, scholars at Penn State University found in a 2009 survey.

Prometheus also suggested that the FCC award extra points when settling competing LPFM applications to stations that commit to producing two hours of local news each week. Stations that have offices staffed by employees and volunteers for at least 20 hours a week should also be favored, Prometheus argued.

Native stations: Native Public Media supported the FCC’s proposal to allow Native applicants to operate more than one LPFM. Operators are now restricted to operating just one low-power station.

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