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FCC clears the way for noncom FM channel rush

Updated version of article published in Current,
April 9, 2007
By Mike Janssen

In October, for the first time in years, the FCC will accept applications for full-power noncommercial FM channels.

Few if any available frequencies will be in cities of large or medium size. Radio for People, a coalition of noncommercial radio advocates, found little room for new stations within 30 miles of the country’s 100 biggest cities. And few will beam more than 6,000 watts, according to John Crigler, a communications attorney with Garvey Schubert Barer in Washington, D.C.

On March 27 (2007), the FCC cleared the way for the much-anticipated application window, ending years of limbo for noncommercial radio, with an order resolving 76 long-pending disputes over noncommercial permits (PDF). The commission used a point-based system for the first time to break logjams.

At least seven current operators of public stations were tentatively given channels they had sought years ago, often prevailing over religious broadcasters. Iowa Public Radio could gain as many as eight stations and Wyoming Public Radio could add two.

The applications, going back as far as 1988, became snagged in red tape because they competed with each other in overlapping service areas. The FCC abandoned hearings for settling the mutually exclusive applications and proposed a point system that became mired in legal challenges. An appeals court struck down the last of the challenges in 2004.

The new system awards points to applicants based on various criteria. It favors local applicants and those who operate no other stations, giving an advantage to pubcasters; some competing religious broadcasters operate dozens of satellite-fed stations far from their headquarters. In the case of ties, the FCC gave the nod to the proposed radio service that would reach a larger audience.

With old channel disputes moving toward settlement, the FCC will give more noncom broadcasters a shot at acquiring permits for full-power stations this fall.

The FCC Media Bureau announced April 4 it will accept applications for reserved noncommercial FM channels during the weeklong window, Oct. 12 to 19 (PDF of order).

“It’s a nice moment to actually be able to tell people when the opportunity is going to be and what they can do about it,” says Pete Tridish, director of electromagnetism at the Prometheus Radio Project.

Winners named in Iowa, Wyoming

The wait is not quite over for pubcasters who triumphed over competitors in the recent proceeding. The FCC will accept petitions challenging the tentative winners until May 2.

Iowa Public Radio stands to receive the most permits. The FCC tentatively awarded five to the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls and three to Iowa State University in Ames. The two universities own many of the 12 AM and FM stations now operated by the Iowa network.

Wayne Jarvis, director of network operations for Iowa Public Radio, declined to discuss plans for the stations until after the appeal window closes.

Wyoming Public Radio is in line to receive two permits for stations in Laramie, where the network is based. One is likely to anchor a statewide all-classical network fed by satellite, according to Jon Schwartz, g.m. The second station will probably air jazz, he said. Schwartz also plans to file for as many as 10 new stations in October.

Other possible victors announced last month include Wisconsin Public Radio; Spokane Public Radio; WEOS in Geneva, N.Y.; Temple University in Philadelphia, operator of WRTI; and California State University in Chico, operator of KCHO. Several universities, high schools and school districts may also get permits.

Broadcasters denied applications include Wisconsin Public Radio; Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Ore.; WSKG in Binghamton, N.Y.; and Murray State University in Murray, Ky.

Jefferson Public Radio, which already operates 35 stations and translators, didn’t do well because the point system favors applicants with fewer stations. Ron Kramer, the net’s executive director, is considering appealing the decision. JPR has already sued the FCC twice over the point system.

Prepping for October rush

The FCC’s treatment of the mutually exclusive applications gives broadcasters a taste of how it might handle filings for new stations later this year, says Crigler.

“The FCC is going to be relatively unforgiving if you file late or outside the window, no matter what the excuse,” he says. “No mercy. And that’s going to be important in the upcoming window.” The window may be open only five days, Crigler says, but FCC staffers have informally agreed to announce it at least 90 days in advance.

Many say the window is likely to bring stiff competition for frequencies, especially from religious broadcasters, and successful applicants are likely to exhaust most remaining frequencies.

The Radio for People coalition is preparing for the rare opportunity. The group, including Prometheus, Pacifica, Public Radio Capital and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, confirmed that most available frequencies are in areas with limited populations.

The study was “rudimentary” but useful in narrowing down possibilities, says Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project. “We must have gotten six zillion calls from people in Queens,” he says. “It helps us let them know that this isn’t the path for them.”

Prometheus has deployed volunteers to answer basic questions from would-be broadcasters, hoping to prevent applicants from wasting legal and technical fees. The group is working with some of the same organizations that it has helped to acquire low-power FM stations, such as schools, farm workers and civil rights activists.

A group working with Radio for People, the Future of Music Coalition, is working with choruses, opera companies, chamber music groups and nonprofits that support jazz, among other arts organizations. NFCB is encouraging Native tribes in rural areas to apply.

Some possible applicants already operate low-power FM stations but want the tougher signal protections that full-power stations enjoy, Tridish says. Others missed the last LPFM filing window.

Prospective full-power broadcasters, however, need more start-up capital to fund their efforts. The application process can cost $7,000, according to Tridish, with no guarantee of success. “That’s money you have to be willing to lose,” he says.

Prometheus and public radio’s Station Resource Group also plan to ask the FCC to limit the number of applications an organization can submit. That could cool competition from religious broadcasters in particular, who in previous windows have flooded the FCC with applications for stations all over the country.

In 2003, two religious groups working in tandem submitted almost a third of the 13,000 applications filed during a filing window for low-power FM translators.

The FCC has also asked some applicants who submitted proposals before the 2000 freeze to amend their applications in preparation for the fall filing window. Applications that are not amended will be dismissed.

Web page posted April 17, 2007
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee


In 2000, the FCC gave the go-ahead to squeeze hundreds of low-power noncom stations in the FM band. Current profiles three diverse LPFM stations operating in 2005.

The FCC point system gives preference to applicants who are local and who don't have many other stations in their pockets.

For unreserved channels, as well, FCC again turns to point system, 2003.


FCC Media Bureau announced an Oct. 12-19 (2007) application window for FM construction permits in noncom band, 88.1 to 91.9 MHz (PDF). The bureau gives its general info on applications here.

The FCC selected 74 tentative recipients of construction permits for new stations in an order released March 27 (PDF). Settling these battling applications was the final step in clearing the way for the upcoming application window.

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