Some items on the wish list of low-power FM broadcasters are as small as the stations themselves, while others are big enough that full-power neighbors may find them hard to swallow.
Dozens of low-power operators and their supporters gathered at the FCC Feb. 8  to boast of their community-building efforts and lobby the agency for rule changes that would strengthen the service. The broadcasters share many of the same concerns, and their lobbying efforts are buttressed by advocacy groups including the Media Access Project and Prometheus Radio Project.
The half-day forum marked the fifth anniversary of the commission’s invention. Launched in January 2000, the class of LPFM stations is limited to 100 watts and noncommercial ownership.
There were 283 licensed LFPMs as of September 2004, according to the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, and 660 more with construction permits. Urban crowding in the FM band puts most of the stations in rural areas and smaller communities.
FCC commissioners, including outgoing Chairman Michael Powell, voiced willingness to smooth a few wrinkles in the low-power rules. The Media Bureau is working "very, very hard" to address the new stations’ concerns, said Powell, who called the assembled broadcasters "the living embodiment of the promise that we hoped for."
Advocates are optimistic the FCC will address smaller inconveniences, making it easier for them to change board members, relocate transmitters and hang on to construction permits that often expire too soon for broadcasters struggling to get on the air. Other requests, however, would have the FCC mediating thorny turf battles between low-power and full-power stations.
"It sounded more like [commissioners] were interested in moving the items where there wasn't any potential for conflict with any other licensee," says Pete Tridish, a Prometheus Radio Project activist who adopted the pseudonym during his pirate-radio days.
Butting heads with big neighbors
California's KRBS fits the mold of the eclectic, deeply local LPFM, broadcasting shows such as Raga Music, The Best of Broadway and Exploring Alternative Health to the middling-sized city of Oroville.
Like many LPFMs, KRBS is susceptible to annoying signal interference or even being knocked off air. Full-power stations have what the FCC calls primary status, protecting them from interference within a given area, but LPFMs do not. (The same lowly status distinction makes translator stations vulnerable when other stations set up nearby, as in the case of expanding religious broadcasters.)
A third of LPFMs could be drowned out if full-power broadcasters move closer or acquire nearby vacant allotments, estimates Tridish. Another 60 percent could face significant interference.
In Oroville, KRBS's signal is strong enough that for some listeners it drowns out the city's hard-rock station, says Station Manager Marianne Knorzer. But it suffers interference from a Christian broadcaster's translator to the southwest and could worsen when a full-power station powers up on its other flank.
"It's like we don't even own our own frequency," Knorzer says.
Knorzer and other LPFMers argue that the FCC should grant their stations primary status, recognizing their local service as more important than commercial fare.
"To import a distant signal from 50 to 70 miles away does not serve the purposes of localism that the [Communications Act] is meant to serve," says Harold Feld, senior v.p. of the Media Access Project in Washington, D.C.
But primary status could empower a tiny 100-watt LPFM to block a full-power station from moving into its market, and the proliferation of this giant-stopping weapon would no doubt alarm the Goliaths of broadcasting.
"You can imagine how the National Association of Broadcasters would feel about that," says Harold Kozlowski, who comes to low-power radio from commercial broadcasting.
Kozlowski has problems of his own. He launched an automated all-classical LPFM in Concord, N.H., last year, only to encounter heavy interference from a powerful first-adjacent commercial station atop Mount Washington.
In hilly Concord, "if you don't have a tremendously selective radio ... you can't pick us up," says Kozlowski, who estimates that at least half his listening area is affected.
Another proposed policy change — in the way the FCC calculates acceptable transmitter locations — could help Kozlowski, he says. LPFM operators must specify their sites using simple mileage separations from potentially interfering stations. But the FCC allows other classes of broadcasters to use contour-overlap methods that account for features of terrain that limit interference.
That method might help Kozlowski find a better transmitter site. But it could also allow for the licensing of many more LPFMs — an outcome that would be unpopular with some established broadcasters.
LPFM operators have another headache from their second-fiddle status. Amid deliberations about the service's future, the FCC has accepted thousands of translator applications that would extend the reach of full-power stations, barring new LPFMs or impinging upon existing ones in those areas.
The March 2003 application window brought in 10,000 filings, according to Feld, undercutting predictions that a pending Senate bill would lead to licensing of hundreds more low-power stations.
Introduced Feb. 8, the same day as the FCC forum, the bill would let LPFMs broadcast on channels that are third-adjacent — three clicks of the dial away — from full-power stations. The FCC originally allowed the closer spacing, but in 2001 Congress restored the protections and asked the FCC to study the matter further. The FCC has estimated that the tighter rules cut the number of potential LPFMs by 80 percent.
Mitre Corp., the FCC's engineering consultant, found the third-adjacent protections overly strict. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has led the charge to settle the issue in favor of low-power radio.
NPR joined the NAB in opposing McCain's bill and accusing Mitre of faulty methodology. But the network now supports licensing some third-adjacent LFPMs as real-world interference tests.
Even if McCain's bill passes, LPFM boosters fear that translator applicants will overrun their turf. If their bid for primary status fails, they hope the commission will at least wait to process translator applications until after the third-adjacency debate is settled.
In the meantime, the FCC may help them with some less controversial tweaks. An LPFM now must wait for a rare filing window to move its transmitter more than two kilometers or reassign more than half of its board. LPFM advocates want those restrictions loosened, saying they need more freedom for such common changes.
They also want the FCC to extend low-power construction permits from 18 months to three years to give broadcasters more time to raise money and set up shop. And they request better communication from the agency about the opening of filing windows and other actions affecting LPFM.
They hope for rapid action. Powell has said he will resign after the FCC's March 10 meeting and the resulting vacuum, they fear, will swallow their pleas. "We'll end up with another 500 translator applications granted before anyone even starts to look at the issue again," Tridish says.
posted April 6, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee