FCC filing window gives stations chance to launch new radio broadcasts

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Tony Webster/Flickr via Creative Commons

A radio tower in Makoshika State Park, Glendive, Mont.

Dozens of public broadcasters await the results of an FCC application window that offered a rare chance to expand their radio services with new frequencies.

The commission received 1,282 applications for new noncommercial signals in a filing window that closed Nov. 9. About three dozen applicants were nonprofits or educational institutions that already operate public radio stations. The applicants also included low-power FM broadcasters and two Native tribes.

Public stations including Nevada Public Radio, Texas Public Radio and Gallup Public Radio in New Mexico are angling to boost coverage in rural areas of Western states. Other applicants include Maine Public, Delaware First Media and Connecticut Public Broadcasting.

About two-thirds of the applications the FCC received are mutually exclusive, meaning that they conflict with other applications and await an evaluation process to determine which will be granted. The FCC favors local applicants, diversity of ownership and larger coverage areas, among other factors.

The rest of the applications face no opposition, allowing them to be “accepted for filing” in FCC terminology. However, members of the public can still file objections.

Applications from 19 organizations with ties to public broadcasting have been accepted for filing, getting them a step closer to receiving permits for the new signals. Among them is Montana Public Radio, whose licensee, the University of Montana in Missoula, has four accepted applications and three more tied up in mutually exclusive groups.

The rare opportunity to launch new frequencies comes at the perfect time for the station to fill holes in its coverage in the state’s western mountains, said GM Ray Ekness. It also gives Montana Public Radio a chance to extend new service to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. (The Blackfeet tribe has several of its own applications under consideration.)

“It’s been a great opportunity for us, and we’re excited to help out the listeners across Montana,” Ekness said.

Most of the station’s applications that have been accepted for filing would reach listeners who can’t currently receive one of Montana Public Radio’s nine signals at home, said Technical Director Saxon Holbrook. Some may pick up another public station, such as Thompson Falls residents who can listen to Spokane Public Radio from Washington. “We’ll be working with them to make sure that they get as much service as possible, even maintaining their connection to Spokane Public Radio,” Holbrook said.

If Montana Public Radio succeeds in receiving new frequencies, equipping the facilities could cost the state network $40,000 to $100,000 per signal. The network already has some money on hand thanks in part to American Rescue Plan Act funds.

“We also want to go to the community and get some buy-in from them as well,” Ekness said. “It's a terrific opportunity to make a splash in these communities for the first time. And I know we have people who really want us there, so I think that’ll go a long way to helping raise some money.”

Montana Public Radio usually works on facilities in mountainous areas between June and mid-October to avoid heavy snowfalls. After getting a construction permit from the FCC, broadcasters have three years to start broadcasting on their new signals.

Public radio listeners in Wyoming could also benefit from expanded service if Wyoming Public Media snaps up new signals. The Laramie-based network has four applications accepted for filing and six in mutually exclusive groups.

Two applications accepted for filing would fill a coverage gap in western Wyoming, according to GM Christina Kuzmych. Another would strengthen the station’s main signal in the Greater Teton Area, and a frequency in Gillette would add a second service.

“The one thing to remember about Wyoming is that [it is] rural, rural, rural, with many miles of lonely (but breathtakingly beautiful) distances,” Kuzmych said in an email. “There are many pockets of Wyoming that don’t have solid broadband, if any, and it will take some time to remedy. So though we have a strong commitment to digital, we still depend on terrestrial coverage for the majority of the audience.”

WPM will pay for the new services primarily with donor gifts designated for coverage in underserved areas, Kuzmych said. 

Correction: An earlier version of the map accompanying this article omitted five applications by Maine Public Broadcasting Corp. that have been accepted for filing.

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