A comeback for Low Power FM radio?

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Posted by madcityradio.com on March 03, 2009 at 14:52:08:

A comeback for Low Power FM radio?

Low Power FM boosters are once again pushing Congress to make it easier to get LPFM licenses. But has the broadband revolution made this cause less urgent?

By Matthew Lasar | ARS Technica
Last updated March 3, 2009 5:15 AM CT

It is once more into the breach for the Low Power FM radio movement. LPFM boosters and Freepress held a press conference on Wednesday to announce the reintroduction of the Local Community Radio Act of 2009. Sponsored by Representative Mike Doyle (D-PA), the law would loosen the Federal Communications Commission's FM band interference rules, making it easier to establish many more up-to-100-watt, non-commercial radio stations around the United States. Most LPFMs serve areas of about three miles or so.

"When we get this bill passed this year it will be possible for three thousand new community radio stations to appear in cities and towns and suburbs and rural areas all across the country," Doyle told reporters. The bill has 22 co-sponsors in the House, most notably Lee Terry (R-NE) and Ron Paul (R-TX). It also has the backing of groups like the Future of Music Coalition, whose President Michael Bracy expressed impatience with the time it has taken to get this legislation off the ground.

Thousands of local organizations focused on local culture and music "would give their eye tooth to run small, local, non-commercial radio stations," Bracy said. "And we have had a federal policy for many years where the FCC has recognized that there is spectrum available - there's no technical reason not to let these stations on - yet the Federal government has essentially stood in the way."

The third notch

A brief refresher seems appropriate at this point. When the FCC created its Low Power FM (LPFM) service in 2000, it ruled that these new, locally based nonprofit frequencies had to avoid full-power FM stations in order to minimize interference, but not up to and including the "third adjacent" channel (that third closest notch on the FM dial). The National Association of Broadcasters quickly protested, using its considerable pull to get Congress to pass the Radio Broadcast Protection Act, which restored the third adjacent block.

This meant that any half-dozen big FM stations parked on the lower end of the band effectively function as no-fly zones for prospective low-power nonprofit broadcasters. And so while a wave of mostly rural LPFMs have been launched under the FCC's Congressionally modified rules, the service has fallen far short of its potential reach, at least from the perspective of LPFM boosters.

But the Protection Act also allowed the FCC's Media Bureau to commission a study to test the NAB's assertions, and several years later a prominent engineering firm agreed that a deregulatory approach was feasible. "Based on the measurements and analysis reported herein, existing third-adjacent channel distance restrictions should be waived to allow LPFM operation at locations that meet all other FCC requirements," the MITRE Corporation's engineers concluded in 2003.

And so the FCC has repeatedly asked Congress to revisit Low Power FM. Capitol Hill should "re-address this issue and modify the statute to eliminate the third-adjacent channel distant separation requirements for LPFM stations," the agency announced on February 19, 2004.

Mike Doyle has been trying to do just that ever since, so far without success. His Local Community Radio Act of 2007 never got out of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, even though it had 99 co-sponsors, with a parallel bill in the Senate backed by John McCain (R-AZ). The latest proposal would, once again, scotch that third adjacent restriction, leaving the rest of the service's rules intact: only nonprofits or government entities (e.g., a high school) can own them, and the FCC will favor applicants who can guarantee at least eight hours of local broadcasting a day.

The future?

How will the NAB respond to this latest initiative? We contacted the trade association and received no reply. But interference questions aside, you'd have to be pretty obtuse not to notice that the broadcasting environment has dramatically changed since 1997, when the FCC first proposed its LPFM service. There's satellite radio, podcasting, Internet radio, mobile radio, peer-to-peer - not to mention the social Web revolution with its vast reach. Have these technological breakthroughs made the LPFM cause less urgent?

Shortly after Doyle's press conference, I asked this question of Paul Riismandel, on whose mediageek radio show I sometimes appear. Paul is an outspoken advocate of both LPFM and streaming radio. He pointed to LPFM's commitment to locally based service, most famously WQRZ's coverage of the Katrina disaster. "I see no evidence that webcasting or podcasting is yet serving local communities, especially smaller, nonmetropolitan communities, as well as radio does," Riismandel argued.

Then there's LPFM's superior economics for community groups. Take the streaming service Live365, for example. A package that permits just 100 simultaneous listeners starts at $200/month. "By comparison a LPFM station in a medium or large city could easily expect to reach a population as much as a thousand times that size," Riismandel notes - although he added that it's unrealistic to expect an LPFM station to consistently reach 100,000 listeners or more.

This comparison also works for podcasting, he contends, where somebody eventually has to foot the bandwidth bill, "and unexpected popularity can quickly cause bandwidth costs to spiral." The point is that the scalability costs for LPFM are much less expensive and much more predictable: "Radio signals do not get busy when more people tune in, making them ideal for broadcasting emergency communications to a wide audience."

On the client side - no question about it - FM radios are still cheaper than computers and broadband subscriptions. Riismandel recalls that not long ago he took a call during his regular radio show, and directed his listener to the program's online archives. The caller said he couldn't go there because he couldn't afford a computer or broadband, and pretty much did his Internet at the public library, where audio access was limited.

This point was echoed at the press conference by Shawn Campbell of the Chicago Independent Radio Project (CHIRP). "When you're talking about Web radio, when you are talking about podcasting, you still shut out people who don't have access to those technologies," she said. "If you're waiting on line at the library for an hour to get your ten minutes on the Internet, you're not able to listen to audio. You're searching for a job."

That raises another difficult question, of course. How will these new noncommercial LPFM radio stations support themselves financially? Certainly not by hitting up unemployed library patrons during this economic downturn. Perennially short on money, community radio stations tend to rely on small armies of volunteer producers who often serve up confusing, fragmented schedules that, wattage limits aside, rarely win audiences comparable to their commercial and public radio neighbors.

But given the quality of local coverage you get on AM or FM radio these days, and how fiercely resistant commercial broadcasters are to any FCC rules requiring more localism, Mike Doyle's bill still seems like a no-brainer to me. At this point it's back in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

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