Ten Years Later, LPFM Wins the Battle for the Air

by Matthew L. Schafer

Note: This report originally appeared on the media website LWR.

In the shadow of media coverage surrounding the historic vote to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the United States Senate quietly passed the Low Power Community Radio Act (S. 592).  The House of Representatives passed the Senate bill’s counterpart last year.  A number of citizen organizations, non-profit organizations, churches, and colleges are just a few organizations that may be able to take advantage Low Power FM (LPFM).

LPFM is any station, which is licensed with the FCC, to transmit at a lower power than commercial radio stations.  LPFM stations usually have a reach of just seven miles, but serve to highlight local communities, artists, and independent musicians.

In January of 2000, the FCC created the LPFM designation.  The creation of these stations was immediately throttled by the passage of the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000.  At the bequest of large commercial broadcasters, Congress passed the Act, which prevented any LPFM station from being within “three clicks” of a commercial station.

So, if one station in Chicago is broadcasting at 90.1, and another at 91.3, no LPFM station could use any of the airwaves between the stations, because even if it was at 90.7 it would be within three clicks of each full powered station.

According to the Free Press, a non-profit media reform organization, the removal by the Low Power Community Radio Act of this “three click” restriction would allow hundreds, if not thousands of LPFM stations to benefit local communities by having access the public’s airwaves.  Over the last ten years—and in spite of the restrictions—over 850 LPFM stations have already been licensed with the FCC.  (See an excellent synopsis of the history of LPFM at Reason.com.)

“These noncommercial stations will help to diversify the airwaves, support local music and culture, and assist communities during emergencies,” Candace Clement of Free Press said.  “This is an amazing and exciting victory for the many organizations across the country who have been waiting for an opportunity to get on the air.”

Many organizations have been fighting for this victory over the last ten years, including the Prometheus Radio Project, which has been lauded for working tirelessly against the bill’s opponents.  The Prometheus Radio Project even took to protesting the National Association of Broadcasters earlier this month.

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“A town without a community radio station is like a town without a library,” said Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project.  “Many a small town dreamer – starting with a few friends and bake sale cash – has successfully launched a low power station, and built these tiny channels into vibrant town institutions.”

One of the Low Power Community Radio Act’s opponents was the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), which argued that allowing LPFM stations access to the airwaves would cause interference with the full powered commercial broadcasting stations.  The NAB has been the principle opponent of LPFM since 2000.

“Interference is a real concern for local broadcasters and buffer protections are necessary and make sense,” Caroline Beasley of NAB told Congress in 2007.  “Even with third adjacent protections in place, there are examples of harmful interference caused by LPFM stations that are not adhering to existing technical regulations.”

Despite the claims of interference, the FCC concluded, after review of a 2003 report, that “even in the worst case, no third-adjacent channel interference between a LPFM station and an existing full-service FM station will exist” if the third-adjacent channel rules were discarded.

The LPFM bill now awaits President Obama’s signature, at which time it the third-adjacent channel rule will be repealed.  Activists caution, however, that the work is far from over.  Brandy Doyle, Policy Director at the Prometheus Radio Project, recently warned, that while citizens are on their “way to seeing new community radio stations across the U.S. This marks a beginning, not an end, to our work.”