Local Radio Triumphs Again

Local radio advocates have been cranking up the volume, and it’s paying off. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld a Federal Communications Commission ruling that protects existing Low Power FM stations from being knocked off the air by full power stations. And yesterday, a House subcommittee held a hearing on the Local Community Radio Act, a bill that would expand the number of LPFM radio stations across the country.

Both are victories in the fight to protect and expand low power radio, which has long been threatened by broadcast rules favoring full power and commercial stations. To fully appreciate these victories is to know low power radio’s history of struggle.

"Secondary Status"

LPFM stations have what is known as “secondary status,” which means they have no protection whatsoever against “encroachment” – what happens when a full power station moves its broadcast tower into a space occupied by a low power station. That means that if your neighborhood LPFM was broadcasting at 89.1 and a full power station relocated its tower to your town and claimed that channel, the LPFM has only two options: Move elsewhere on the dial or get off the air.

Moving on the dial can be just as disruptive as moving an entire studio operation – except that instead of losing microphones and cables, the station loses listeners who can’t find it on the dial. And it’s not as simple as just grabbing any empty nearby frequency. In many communities, there is simply no space left on the dial for these stations to move to.

In addition to these restrictions, LPFMs have to be licensed on channels that are at least four clicks away on the dial from a commercial station (that would mean 89.9 in our example above). And in most cases, apart from in rural areas, there is no more room left on the dial and the LPFM station simply vanishes, and with it, the community’s only outlet for independent radio.

FCC takes action

In late 2007, the FCC thankfully decided to establish some new rules to allow LPFMs to move to a much closer, empty frequency on the second-adjacent channel (i.e., 89.5).

But this move to protect LPFMs upset the National Association of Broadcasters – the lobbying arm of the commercial broadcasting industry, which wants to claim all airspace as its own and is threatened by LPFM’s endurance. The NAB argues that allowing LPFM stations to broadcast on the second-, and even third-adjacent channels will cause interference with their own programming. The NAB’s response? Sue the FCC.

But public advocacy organizations have been fighting back. The public interest law firm Media Access Project represented the nonprofit Prometheus Radio Project in the case. And their hard work paid off late last week when the courts affirmed the FCC’s policy, sending the NAB slinking back home.

This win will go a long way toward protecting the rights of existing stations that actually serve the interests of their communities instead of rehashing the monotonous “hits” of bland pop stars. But it does nothing to establish new stations, precisely the issue that the congressional hearing on the Local Community Radio Act addressed yesterday.

Expanding local radio's reach

While local radio advocates won a victory in the courts over the much closer second-adjacent channel, new stations are still restricted from going on the air on the even-more-distant third-adjacent channel. If you find yourself asking, “What’s wrong with this picture?” you are not alone.

Nobody wants to tune in to their favorite radio station and deal with static. But the spacing requirements for LPFMs are all wrong. And it’s not just the FCC (the agency that is responsible for managing the radio airwaves) that thinks so. A $2.2 million taxpayer funded independent study (known in local radio circles as the MITRE report) has proven that stations are perfectly capable of broadcasting on third-adjacent channels (89.7 in our example) without causing interference. But until Congress passes the Local Community Radio Act, the FCC cannot put LPFMs on these frequencies.

Here’s where things get truly inane: There are thousands of translators – radio broadcast towers that repeat the signals of commercial broadcasters – all across the country operating on third-adjacent channels and using the exact same technology that LPFMs use. As Rep. Michael Doyle (D-Pa.) declared in the congressional hearing yesterday:

What we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but when it comes to FCC and the big broadcasters, this name is critical. Translators that serve the interest of big broadcasters work just fine on these third adjacent channels. And there’s no complaints and no issues about interference...I just hope once and for all, we can sort of eliminate this double-talk that’s been taking place for years.

Amen to that.

FCC chairs – past and present – support the expansion of LPFMs. A diverse array of groups, from the public interest to the civil rights to the media justice communities to emergency response workers, is calling on Congress to pass the legislation. And musicians across the country are speaking out in support. So unless the commercial broadcasters want to do away with all those translators, I’d invite them to get on board and join the community radio party as well.

The hearing is an exciting step, but there is still work to be done. The bill has a growing bipartisan list of co-sponsors, and we need to maintain the pressure to keep the momentum going. You can join the fight for local radio by taking action here. And to learn more about what these stations can do for your community, visit the Prometheus Radio Project.