The FCC has announced a filing window for interested parties desiring to propose new non-commercial, educational (NCE) FM radio stations. These NCE channels must be proposed within the “reserved” FM band from 99.1 to 91.9 FM (from 92.1 FM to 107.9 FM is the non-reserved band for commercial FM broadcasters). Applications for non-commercial “full power” (as opposed to “low power”, or “LPFM”) stations are only accepted within designated filing windows that are far and in between. There are four basic types of FM licenses: Commercial, non-commercial, low power (LPFM), and translator/booster. Commercial and NCE stations are considered “primary” service stations.
Commercial stations generally play hit music or talk radio, run commercials, and exist to make profit (92.1-107.9 FM). They can range from 100 to 100,000 watts.
LPFM are small, non-commercial stations, up to 100 watts, whose purpose is to serve a specific community or sub-community within a city. The FCC created the LPFM designation in 2000 to address the public’s right of access to the airwaves. Unfortunately, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), who represent corporate radio interests, successfully lobbied Congress to curtail the expansion of LPFM. LPFM does not have primary status, which means that it is permissible for them to receive interference from commercial radio stations, or be bumped off the air if a commercial broadcaster wants to utilize the frequency. LPFMs are usually licensed within the commercial FM band (92.1-107.9 FM) but also can reside from 88.1 to 91.9 FM.
Translators/Boosters are automated transmitters that rebroadcast a primary station’s programming to a new area, or an area of poor reception. Translators may rebroadcast an on-air signal (88.1-107.9 FM or AM station), or broadcast a primary station’s signal via microwave or satellite link (88.1-91.9 FM). Boosters are infill transmitters used on the same frequency as the main station only within that station’s area of service. Translators can only be applied for within a designated application window (not the upcoming NCE window), while boosters can be applied for at anytime, pending you already own a commercial or NCE station.
Non-Commercial Educational (NCE) stations primarily exist between 88.1 to 91.9 FM, the reserved band, and exist to serve non-commercial purposes; they are commercial-free. Non-profit groups, schools, and religious entities are allowed to apply for these stations. Examples of the types of stations that primarily use NCE frequencies include National Public Radio (NPR), college radio stations, and Christian satellite networks. Occasionally, NCE stations can be found on the non-reserved band (92.1-107.9 FM), but this is a result of a complicated petitioning process. NCE’s can range from 100 to 100,000 watts.
The NCE filing window will run from 12:01 AM EDT on November 2, 2021 until November 9, 2021 at 6 PM EST. Applications are submitted electronically via the FCC’s new LMS application filing database.
But before we work up your hopes, the NCE FM band is mostly filled to capacity across the United States. The last morsels of non-commercial channels able to penetrate into urban areas were claimed in 2007. However, if you live in rural / small-town areas, there may be possibilities here and there. The protocol for applying is:
You need to have a nonprofit, educational institution, or (nonprofit) religious entity to apply. If you miss that qualification, you can still form a nonprofit right now. It does not need to be a 501(c)(3)-IRS sanctioned nonprofit, but merely one with registration with the state.
Traditionally you would hire a contract engineer and lawyer to fill out the FCC paperwork. These are specific engineers who do FCC paperwork, and usually a DC communications attorney. This may cost between $2 - 5K. However, work on this application may be done DIY-as-possible -- contact Common Frequency for alternative options.
First step is to see if anything is remotely available. Contact Common Frequency for courtesy look-up.
The application is prepared in advance. Usually it is drafted weeks before the filing window and uploaded during the filing window. An important part of the application process is to review the “point system” process. Since you will be competing with other nonprofits for the channel, there are simple ways to maximize the chances of receiving a channel: (A) If you are an established nonprofit (in existence two years or more) and are applying for a radio channel locally, preference will be given. (B) Preference will be given to those who do not have a radio channel in the same location. (C) Tiebreakers will be won by the applicant with the least number of total radio channels licensed. A second tiebreaker can be won by the applicant with the least amount of pending applications. (D) A superseding preference will be given to the applicant that proposes to cover an area not already covered by a NCE station, or only one NCE station.
After applying, the FCC will need to sort through the applications, and then will grant permits for new stations that only one applicant applied for. This could occur as soon as a couple months after the filing window. For radio channels in which multiple applicants applied for, they will release a list of “mutually exclusive” groups. The FCC will allow applicants to file petitions against competitors.
When the FCC grants a construction permit for a new station, it allows three years to build the facility.
Q. Can a LPFM upgrade to a NCE?
A. LPFM licensees can apply for a NCE if a channel is open 88/1 to 91.9 FM. However, prior to building the NCE station, they need to divest the LPFM license (transfer it to another nonprofit). A divestiture notification must be filed with the NCE application. There is no preference given to the LPFM.
Q: Is there any liability in applying?
A: For submitting an application, the only loss is the money you put up for getting the application together (that is, if you don’t receive a license). If you do receive a license, yes, the board is in charge of the radio station license. If the board has concerns regarding owning and operating a radio station, you can always form a new non-profit now with the intention of transferring the license of the station before you go on air, taking away all financial and on-air liability from the board (aside: the new group must be together for two years prior to transfer, but the FCC gives three years to get on air). This should quell liability concerns with the original applicant.
Q. How are we going to build and run a station? None of us have any radio background.
A: Many full-power and LPFM stations have been started by regular community, college, and high-school groups; the information has been out there for years. Organizations such as Prometheus, NFCB, Recnet, and Common Frequency have been helping people start stations for years. It is not impossible to learn how to do it; the information is available.
Q: How would we possibly get the yearly money to run a station?
A: Non-commercial stations can accept money from local businesses in exchange for on-air announcements called “underwriting.” Most non-commercial stations also have on-air fund drives. Both forms of income are tax-deductible for the donor..
Q: Is the mission of our group geared towards radio?
A: As long as your group is involved in some type of education,
Q: How is it possible for us to generate that much programming to fill up a day? Are there local requirements for content?
A: As long as it is not obscene, indecent (6AM-10PM), or commercial/beneficiary in nature, the FCC has very few laws that specify programming on NCE’s. Therefore, you can broadcast material from a myriad of sources, and even from other radio stations. There is also free open-source automation software to run programming un-staffed throughout the night and weekends.
Q: If more organizations team-up locally can we all apply together?
A: No. You can only apply under one non-profit. This doesn’t mean other non-profits in your area can’t turn in additional applications. You might want to choose the most financially sound (or the most open-minded) non-profit, and have everyone work with the. Or, multiple non-profits can apply; everyone then can agree to work with the one who eventually receives the license. You can always transfer the license to a neutral radio-specific non-profit (composed of everyone) formed in the future.
For more information contact Common Frequency. Common Frequency is offering application assistance for a sliding-scale donation for those interested in starting student and community radio stations. Email email@example.com for more information.