Low Power FM on the Hill

Shayne Wagman and Casey Rae-Hunter
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

On June 11, 2009, the House Subcommittee for Communications, Technology and the Internet held a hearing on the Local Community Radio Act of 2009. This bill is designed to lift the minimum distance requirements imposed by the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act and allow LPFM stations to exist on “third-adjacent channels,” or channels three clicks away from full-power stations on the dial. Congress imposed this restriction in response to fears that an LPFM’s 100 watt-or-less signal would interfere with a full-power station’s 20,000 watt signal. This is a bit like being worried that a flashlight will steal brightness from an industrial-grade spotlight.

Radio has always been a vital source of information and culture. In its earliest years, radio provided a diverse array of news, music and entertainment broadcasting. Unfortunately, within the last few decades, government-sanctioned consolidation in station ownership has all but eradicated localism and diversity on the public airwaves. The result of these polices can be heard all across America: programming on corporate radio is now a risk-averse wasteland of homogeneity. As detailed in FMC’s April 2009 study on radio consolidation, Same Old Song: An Analysis of Radio Playlist in a Post-FCC Consent Decree World, commercial radio rarely — if ever — plays independent music, local bands or niche genres. Low Power FM (LPFM) stations, however, provide an alternative to commercial radio’s decentralized, characterless broadcasts by providing a platform for underserved musical genres, local artists, and minority, religious and linguistic groups, as well as offering a forum for debate about important local issues.

Despite strong support from the Federal Communications Commission, getting LPFM stations on the air has been difficult. In 2000, the FCC voted to broadly issue LPFM licenses, but the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) responded with outrage, claiming that LPFM stations would cause “oceans of interference” with their full-power FM stations. In response, Congress passed the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act, which restricts opportunities for local groups and organizations to obtain LPFM licenses. Specifically, the Act imposes minimum distance requirements that effectively ban LPFM stations from operating on third-adjacent channels to full-power FM stations. Yet LPFM advocates — including Future of Music Coalition, Prometheus Radio Project and the United Church of Christ — have long argued that the minimum distance requirements arbitrarily imposed by Congress as a result of aggressive NAB lobbying are unnecessary, since LPFMs do not significantly interfere with full-power stations. In fact, the FCC commissioned an independent study analyzing whether the alleged interference problems touted by the NAB truly exist. The interference study, performed by the MITRE Corporation (an independent systems engineering and research organization), was released in 2003 and confirmed that LPFM stations pose no interference threat to commercial radio.

At the June 11 hearing, members of the subcommittee heard testimony from three different witnesses. First, Peter Doyle of the FCC (not to be confused with Representative Mike Doyle, who along with Representative Lee Terry, introduced the bill) confirmed that interference issues with full-power FM stations are virtually non-existent. Next, NAB board member Caroline Beasley gave her testimony opposing the bill. Finally, Cheryl Leanza of United Church of Christ gave a bold statement in support of Low Power Radio.

Doyle’s testimony highlighted two main points. First, the FCC’s recent experience with translator station licensing shows there will be no significant interference problems if LPFMs are allowed to exist on third-adjacent channels. In 2003, the FCC began to license translator stations — stations that relay full-power stations signals to areas that those stations could not otherwise reach — on second and third adjacent channels. Since then, the FCC has not experienced an increase in interference complaints since issuing these licenses, which diminishes the NAB’s argument for not allowing more LPFM stations on the airwaves. Clearly, LPFM stations, which operate at less than half the wattage of translator stations, will cause no increase in interference. Second, the current laws puts some LPFM stations at risk of being forced off the air if a full-power station “moves in” to their area. Lifting the minimum distance requirement would prevent this unfortunate outcome. To support his point, Doyle mentioned the favorable U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruling that had come out a week before the hearing. “Last Friday, the Court held that the Act does not limit the Commission’s authority to set standards for second-adjacent channel waivers and upheld the processing policy.  Enactment of H.R. 1147 would permit the Commission to expand this processing policy to permit third-adjacent channel waivers to avoid LPFM station displacement on a going-forward basis.”

Beasley’s testimony was full of superficial praise for LPFM stations. She opened her statement by saying “[b]oth [commercial and non-commerical LPFM radio] provide value, and they can continue to do so with appropriate interference protections.” Beasley claimed that, despite the MITRE report’s findings, interference risks do exist, and argued that the current state of the law properly balances these risks with providing LPFM licensing opportunities.

Finally, Leanza emphasized the unmet demand for community radio and the immense programming possibilities that would be created by lifting the unnecessary restrictions on LPFM radio. “As I have worked on this issue over the years,” said Leanza, “one of my favorite moments is after I ask someone the question, ‘what would a radio station sound like if you and your community ran it?’ All of a sudden a person’s eyes light up as they start to imagine what they could do. It is a wonderful experience to see the wheels start turning in people’s heads. “

During the questioning period, Chairman Boucher inquired about LPFM’s effect on translator stations rather than focusing on the interference issues between LPFM stations and full-power stations. Doyle answered that the FCC already has rules in place to protect these translator stations from signal interference, and resolved to send the Chairman more details. Rep. Cliff Stearns followed up by asking Beasley why the NAB disputes the independent FCC report showing that LPFM stations cause no significant interference problems. Beasley’s reply was, if not dogmatic, at least inadequate: “We do. We are on record as disputing the report.”

Representative Doyle’s line of questioning artfully showcased the absurdity of the NAB’s assertions regarding LPFM interference. He focused his questioning on Beasley, asking her if the NAB opposes translator stations, and how powerful these stations are. Her answers led him to an important conclusion: “Third adjacent channel translators which operate at 250 watts and are owned by the NAB work perfectly fine.” Logically, it follows that LPFM stations, which operate at less than half that wattage, would similarly “work perfectly fine.” Yet logic and the NAB often seem to be at loggerheads.

Representative Walden — a former full power station owner — veered off in a different direction, questioning Doyle and Leanza about LPFM reporting requirements and FCC oversight over LPFM stations. Although LPFM stations are subject to slightly different requirements than full-power stations, Leanza emphasized that LPFM stations successfully provide diverse, local-oriented programming. It seemed odd to hold LPFM’s feet to the fire on localism, considering that the broadcast range for LPFM is three to five miles — it doesn’t get much more “local” than that.

In all, the hearing, coupled with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruling, represented a significant (and positive) week for LPFM. With momentum growing for the lifting of unnecessary restrictions on LPFM licenses, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before more American towns and cities can reap the benefits of Low Power community radio.

For more information on LPFM, have a look at our fact sheet. You can also get updates on the Local Community Radio Act of 2009 by reading our web posts with the Low Power FM tag.