Low-Power Radio Is Open For Business: A Common Frequency Analysis

December 12, 2012

Media Advisory

Contact: Tracy Rosenberg, Board Member, Common Frequency Tel: (510) 684-6853 Email: lpfm@commonfrequency.org

Low-Power Radio is Open for Business: A Common Frequency Analysis

Washington – The Federal Communication Commission's (FCC's) historic 5th Reconsideration and Order, released on November 30, 2012, brings to a conclusion a decades-long struggle to fully legalize low-power (“pirate”) radio broadcasting and make unused space available to community groups for local radio services.

The Winter 2010 passage of the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA) provided the final political sanction for the low-power radio service. All that remained was the perilous process of figuring out all the details without allowing the powerful commercial broadcasters lobby to set the rules.

Perilous is what it was. The rule making encompassed 50 precise points of implementation and any of them, if subject to certain interpretations, could have severely disadvantaged the new stations against the incumbent broadcasters.

Pete Tridish, Prometheus Radio Project founder says “"The passage of the Local Community Radio Act took a decade, but finally many urban neighborhoods will be able to see some of the benefits that small towns have gotten from operating their own radio stations. Common Frequency played an enormous role in this victory with their technical savvy and devoted work to supporting applicants through the process of getting radio stations".

Now is the time for low-power advocates to switch from crafting engineering reports and decoding policy jargon to the exciting hands-on work of guiding community groups onto the airwaves. The filing window of October 15th, 2013 will be here quickly. Start with asking Common Frequency to perform a channel search in your neighborhood by writing to lpfm@commonfrequency.org or calling 510-684-6853.

Advocates like Common Frequency, Prometheus Radio Project, REC Networks and many others filed dozens of comments determined to maintain a level playing field for the new radio service. So what did we win and what did we lose?

The Order stands as a remarkable document. Underneath pages of technical jargon, it is crystal clear this always-bureaucratic agency took the charge in the LCRA to maintain equity between low-power radio and existing broadcasters seriously. The problem-solving partnership between the FCC's audio division and advocates like Common Frequency led to creative solutions to advance the goals of the bill.

Before we get into the details of the rules of the road, let's take a moment to recognize what this means: a lifting of the barriers of entry into non-commercial broadcasting that have resulted in media ownership diversity statistics hitting record lows (http://www.fcc.gov/encyclopedia/2010-media-ownership-studies).

This is a liberation of the public airwaves and a huge expansion of communication rights.

Now the great opportunity in front of us is to move from theory to action. Common Frequency is happy to announce our low-power radio consulting services will be open for business on January 1, 2013 for groups nationwide (with an emphasis on the western half of the United States). Expert guidance is available in a tiered structure from full service to basic channel search and application review services. (http://www.commonfrequency.org/)

Sue Wilson, Emmy award-winning journalist and Common Frequency board member comments: “October 15, 2013, community groups across the country will have a once in a lifetime opportunity to apply to the FCC to start their own local "Low Power FM" radio stations. But broadcasting over the airwaves depends on science and engineering, so successful applications will require technical expertise. Luckily, the same engineer whose studies showed the FCC how to carve out hundreds of unknown frequencies to create more stations is ready to help! If you really want a radio station, you can't do better than having Todd Urick and Common Frequency guide your way.”

The first rule making challenge advocates faced was to deal with thousands of translator applications filed by incumbent broadcasters and frozen by the passage of the LCRA. Translators distribute the signals of existing broadcasters to areas not reached and operate in the same channels the new low-power stations will occupy. In the last filing window (Auction 83), 13,373 translator applications were filed with the Commission and 9,627 were not processed prior to the freeze. Of the 13,373 applications, 4,219 were filed by just two entities: Radio Asset Ministries (Family Radio) and Edgewater Broadcasting. If the remaining translator applications were processed on a first-come, first-serve basis, it was likely there would be very little space for new channels and the promise of the LCRA for increased broadcast diversity would be not be fulfilled.

Advocates like Common Frequency got to work. An analysis of the 3,746 translator applications processed under Auction 83 prior to the freeze revealed some startling statistics:

  •   1.046 of the translators were granted to the 2 highest filers, RAM and Edgewater, both Christian chain broadcasters or 28%
  •    926 of the translators were never made operational or almost 25%
  •    1,358 of the translators were transferred/sold to different owners or 36%.

This evidence of rampant speculative sales and a dysfunctional translator marketplace convinced the commission the public interest demanded corrective action and changes to the existing rules. Pages and pages of local market studies cemented suspicions that equilateral processing of pending translator applications and new LPFM applications would result in the new radio stations being blocked out. Common Frequency, Prometheus Radio Project and REC Networks tirelessly developed new protocols to give new LPFM stations a fighting chance, maintain fairness for genuine translator applications, and crack down on speculative sales and frequency monopolization by just a few. The final rules, largely crafted by the advocates, provided for:

  •   A national cap of 70 translator applications for any particular applicant
  •   A 3-per-market application cap in the 150 top media markets in the country

The second formidable challenge was the placement of the channels themselves and the protocols for complaints of interference. More than a decade ago, 2nd adjacent channel waivers, which allow alternate broadcasters two signal steps away from existing broadcasters if it can be proven there will be no interference, were blocked. This created a situation where no applications were possible in cities and suburbs where the dial was relatively crowded (basically all of them) and restricted to more rural and remote areas. Years of engineering studies, including those conducted by the commission themselves, documented that claimed

interference from second adjacent channels was highly unlikely to occur. But broadcasters continued to lobby against the waivers or for heavy burdens of proof on applicants to provide expensive engineering analyses to support their assertion that interference was unlikely.

Advocates like Common Frequency scored several significant victories in the handling of interference issues that will support the new community-based radio stations including:

  •    Routine processing of 2nd adjacent channel waivers on request
  •    No administrative burden on applicants besides a simple contour map demonstrating lack of interference
  •    The ability to use directional antennas to avoid the signal areas of existing broadcasters
  •    The ability to transmit at lower ERP's to mitigate interference problems
  •    The ability to transmit at different rates of polarization to mitigate interference problems
  •    The ability to co-locate a transmitter to prevent or mitigate an interference problem
  •    Interference complaints must be documented as “bona fide”, meaning not from any individual with affiliation with an existing broadcaster, and provided with name and address information
  •    Protocol on receipt of a bona fide complaint of interference is to shut down broadcast immediately until the problem is mitigated.
  •    Existing broadcasters must treat low-power broadcasters using directional antennas as if they are broadcasting at their allowed power with a non-directional antenna to avoid interfering with the authorized low-power broadcaster.

This set of rules regarding channel spacing and interference protocols represent a large victory for low-power advocates and allow the new broadcasting service freedom from onerous standards and frivolous interference complaints.

Two other significant areas are of interest.

The first is the question of cross-ownership. The media has been overwhelmed by a surge of consolidation and centralization. To prevent the making of mini-media empires with an low-power permit and a bunch of translators, the new rules restrict the same entity from owning more than 1 low-power permit and 2 translators and requires the two translators to overlap the low-power signal, have the transmitters housed within 10-20 miles of each other, and broadcast synchronous programming. There is an exception is for tribal entities who, subject to the same limitations, may own 2 low-power signals and up to 4 translators. One other exception was made for student groups whose educational institution already owns a non-student run broadcast facility to allow them to apply for a student-run low power station.

This stands in contrast to proposed cross-ownership relaxations proposed for larger broadcasters, which if they go through as originally proposed, allow one entity to own 1 newspaper, 2 television stations, an internet service provider and up to 8 radio stations in the same media market.

The second change involves the “points system”. Points are the method the commission uses to decide who gets a signal when there are multiple qualified applicants. The commission uses points to reward applicants for values that uphold commission goals for localism and diversity in media.

Points that will be rewarded in multiple applicant processing:

  •    To be an established local community presence for 2 years (as a 501c3) or to have 75% of the board members residing within 10 miles of the proposed station's transmitter location.
  •    To provide at least 8 hours a day of locally originated programming
  •    To provide a main studio with paid or volunteer staff in the signal area for a minimum of 20 hours a week.
  •    One additional bonus point to any applicant who can meet both points #2 and points #3
  •    Tribal ownership and service to Native American communities
  •    One bonus point for being a new entrant into the market

What did advocates like Common Frequency, Prometheus Radio Project and REC Networks fail to win?

Probably the most significant loss in the 5th Order and Reconsideration is the failure to obtain licensing for peripheral services at different wattages. At various points, service at 10 watts, 50 watts and 250 watts had been proposed as supplements to the 100 watt low-power service to meet particular needs. In the case of LP250, it was hoped the service would provide greater coverage for low-power stations in rural and remote areas with low population density and remove the need to look for local translators to achieve greater reach. In dense cities, LP10 and LP50 would have added more available frequencies in a crowded band. But none of these services were authorized at this time. Common Frequency is examining the Commission's parameters regarding LP-10 & LP-50, and is actively developing solutions with partnering organizations for further consideration for adoption

The filing window of October 15th 2013 will be here quickly.

Common Frequency's board president Gavin Dahl, station liaison for the award-winning syndicated program Alternative Radio, added, "We are committed to engaging communities who deserve better representation on the public airwaves. Common Frequency has the experience and the assembled talent to get hundreds of quality applications submitted for community groups nationwide."

Start with asking Common Frequency to perform a channel search in your neighborhood by writing to lpfm@commonfrequency.org or calling 510-684-6853.