Low Power FM potential applicants, start your engines. The FCC has announced the long-awaited window for the filing of applications for new LPFM stations. The window will last from October 15-October 29. During this period, nonprofit organizations and governmental organizations will have the opportunity to file for new stations on any FM channel anywhere in the country – as long as they don’t interfere with existing FM or FM translator stations (or channel 6 TV stations which operate on a channel adjacent to the FM band). The FCC has done a great job in processing the remainder of the applications from the 2003 FM translator window, announcing a settlement window for applicants in that proceeding that is open through July 22, to be followed by an auction. Substantially completing the processing of those translator applications has cleared the way for the upcoming LPFM window.
Two FCC Commissioners issued statements hailing the upcoming window and the opportunities that it will present for encouraging more diversity in the media marketplace (see statements of Acting FCC Chair Clyburn and Commissioner Pai). A number of groups that have actively championed LPFM also applauded the opening of the window, some trumpeting plans for workshops across the country to help people prepare for the filing opportunities. We hope that expectations are not being unduly raised. Particularly in larger markets, as the FCC itself has recognized, there will be only very limited opportunities for LPFM applicants, as there is very limited spectrum in those markets not already occupied by FM stations or close enough to existing stations to create interference. As the LPFM rules require that new stations protect existing FM stations from interference on co-channels and first and second adjacent channels, in large markets, there will be little room for new LPFM stations. Groups thinking about opportunities in those markets need to be prepared to face competition for the few channels that may be available and to be realistic - as there will be many places where no channels will be available to serve a particular part of a metropolitan area.
Applicants also need to remember that the FCC has reserved these channels for nonprofit, noncommercial applicants, who will need to follow all the FCC rules against the commercialization of these channels – limiting themselves to underwriting announcements acknowledging financial support without including a call to action, price information or any sort of qualitative claims. The licensee needs to either be a nonprofit entity or government organization.
LPFM stations are meant for local community groups, so owners can’t own multiple stations, and even having board members can be a problem - with only limited exceptions for board members of educational organizations who recuse themselves from decisions regarding the LPFM station. Even programming deals with other stations can present issues. Colleges with professionally operated stations may, however, get an LPFM license to be student-operated.
There are a host of other regulations that govern LPFM station operations. Interested parties must also realize that LPFM is a secondary service, and that new full-power FM stations (or improvements in existing stations) can result in the LPFM station having to abandon their frequency (and, if no other frequencies are available, having to shut the station off the air). And, of course, these stations have limited coverage areas – not serving areas as large as full-power stations.
While there are many limitations on the use of LPFM stations, they can still fill in niches and serve truly local communities with local services. So interested applicants need to study the rules carefully, and make sure that they are ready for the requirements of operating a station. If you’re ready to take the risk, then start getting ready to file an application in October’s filing window.