Over the last year, we’ve watched with excitement as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted new construction permits for over 1500 new low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations across the country. These new stations are claiming space on the public airwaves to better represent the full diversity of American voices, and include stations run by community groups, activists, churches, labor unions, and college students. These stations may only have a range of a few miles, but their impact on their local communities, including musicians, can be immense.
Now, some community radio advocates have asked the FCC to allow these stations to expand their reach. A petition currently under consideration at the Commission would create provisions for LPFM stations that meet certain criteria to broadcast at 250 watts rather than just 100, thus expanding their geographic reach and allowing more listeners the chance to tune in.
This is an idea worth supporting. Future of Music Coalition has fought for expanded opportunities for non-commercial low power FM radio stations from our organization’s beginning, because we know how important these stations are to their local music communities. Even as new digital options become available, broadcast radio remains the number one source of new music discovery, and at a time when consolidation has led commercial radio to focus on repetitive and homogenous playlists that are overwhelmingly weighted towards major labels, LPFM stations offer a breath of fresh air and a much-needed dose of diversity.
Allowing for stronger signal would solve many problems for LPFM. As our longtime allies and LPFM champions Prometheus Radio Project note in their filing in support of the petition:
Many stations are simply unable to reach the community members they seek to serve, even when such service would meet any reasonable interpretation of “local.” While this effect is particularly pronounced in rural areas, where for example a local community may span an entire county, it impacts more densely populated markets as well. In urban areas, LPFM stations face significant interference from full power stations that hinders signal reception in even nearby neighborhoods, and broadcasts are often unable to penetrate buildings within their listening areas. As a result, in towns and cities throughout the country, the public is denied access to the local news and culture carried on LPFM airwaves.
Many LPFM stations and supporters have filed comments in support of the rule change, but unfortunately, the National Association of Broadcasters, the lobby group that represents big commercial broadcasters like I Heart Radio (formerly Clear Channel), Cumulus, and Entercom, has a different view. They’ve filed comments opposing the petition and arguing to limit the reach of these upstart community stations.
This isn’t surprising to anyone who’s been paying close attention to the battles over LPFM that took place over the last 15 years. Throughout that fight, NAB repeatedly offered bogus technological arguments about how LPFM would cause “interference.” Of course, the real issue is that these giant corporations would generally prefer to hold on to the public airwaves for themselves. More powerful non-commercial stations will mean more competition for listeners, and more diversity on the dial. This doesn’t jibe with big radio’s preferences.
While it’s expected that NAB’s up to their same old tricks, and invoking tired talking points about interference, there’s an extra level of hypocrisy. NAB’s renewed efforts to squash community radio coincide with their relentless backing of a bill called the Local Radio Freedom Act. This bill is a statement of opposition to paying musicians when their work is played on the radio. Currently, because of an embarrassing quirk in US copyright law, the US is one of only a few countries in the world (the others include Iran and North Korea) that don’t compensate performers when their music is played on the radio. (For more background, see our factsheet on the issue.) NAB wants big corporations to continue to make billions selling advertising while being allowed to not pay performers a cent.
NAB claims that fixing this loophole would hurt local radio, but don’t be decieved. Requiring radio to pay performers won’t be a burden to truly local radio stations at all. Consider the latest legislation to propose such a requirement, the Fair Play Fair Pay Act: under the provisions of this act, small commercial stations would only have to pay $500 a year, and non-commercial stations including LPFM and college radio stations would only pay $100 annually. It’s pretty cynical that that NAB’s lobbyists are running around on Capitol Hill claiming to represent the interests of local radio, at the same time that they’re filing comments with the FCC to try and limit the reach of truly local radio.
But we’re hoping that the organizing efforts of community radio supporters win out once again, and that LPFM stations are allowed to expand their reach further, serving their diverse communities. Our congratulations to REC Networks and all who backed this effort. If the FCC decides to follow through and open a rulemaking proceeding on this issue, we’ll be watching closely.