North East RadioWatch: January 28, 2000

Welcome Back WMEX, and We Take On LPFM

by Scott Fybush

Back from California (about which more later), NYC (about which a bit more later), and buried under 19" of snow (about which the less said the better), we're back for a look at the last few weeks of radio doings in the Great Northeast, followed by an editorial view of the other big development, LPFM.

And now that we've caught up on all the little stuff that's made up three weeks of Northeast radio, it's time to tackle LPFM.

The facts of the FCC's Report and Order have already been widely distributed, and you can check them out for yourself at the FCC's site, or, thanks to Harold Hallikainen, in easy-to-read HTML.

The key points:

  1. The FCC will begin licensing 100-watt (LP100) stations this spring and 10-watt (LP10) stations sometime thereafter. There will be no 1000-watt (LP1000) service.

  2. Stations will be noncommercial and licensed for renewable eight-year terms. Stations cannot be sold or transferred.

  3. The FCC will use a point system to allocate contested frequencies to community groups, based on length of residency, hours of proposed programming, and amount of local programming proposed.

  4. There will be no protection for third-adjacent stations; a mileage table will determine separation for first- and second-adjacent, co-channel, and IF (10.6 and 10.8 MHz) channels.

  5. LPFMs will be limited to one per owner per market. An ownership cap will be set at one LPFM to an owner nationwide initially, rising later to as many as ten to an owner.

  6. LPFMs cannot be LMA'd to or owned by full-power broadcasters.

  7. LPFMs must protect all class D licenses and all existing translators and boosters.

  8. LPFMs will have to be equipped with EAS decoding equipment, but will not be required to have EAS encoders.

  9. There will be no local origination, main studio, or public file requirements for LPFM.

  10. LPFM stations will have calls of the form WXXX-LP and KXXX-LP.

  11. Former pirates can apply if they stopped operating illegally before February 26, 1999, or within 24 hours if notified by the FCC before that.

So what, in NERW's opinion, does it all mean? We're glad you asked...

This is clearly a decision crafted by a committee, and as with all such decisions, there's no way it can satisfy everyone. (In fairness, we're convinced the only way NAB and Eddie Fritts can be satisfied is if individual station ownership were to be banned outright, while the lunatic fringe of pirate FM wouldn't be satisfied with anything short of the FCC publicly announcing it lacks jurisdiction over LPFM.) Now that it's here, though, let's look at how it will -- and won't -- further the idea of local community broadcasting that led to its creation.

We'll start by acknowledging that the FCC did a few things right. The initial proposal for LP1000 stations would have created a completely different beast; a commercial service that would have filled the role once served by the original class A stations. There may still be a place for such allocations, but all sides agreed pretty quickly that anything above 100 watts isn't "low power," and we're glad the FCC got the message.

A hundred watts is a reasonable power for serving a small-to-medium community, as the many college and community noncomms who already use such power through grandfathered class D and small class A licenses can attest. And in a sense, LP100 is just a way to shoehorn a few more such allocations into the spectrum. It's not a panacea -- in fact, a preliminary NERW study (and remember, your editor was a history major in college, not an engineer) suggests there's not a single frequency that could be used by an LP100 in or near Boston or New York City. (It didn't HAVE to be that way, but we'll have more to say in a moment about translator protection...)

Outside those big markets, though, we've found a few promising frequencies. Now it's time to ask the big question: who'll end up with them, and what will the public get from it all?

We're a little bit concerned about the "institutional" nature of the FCC's licensing preferences. By looking to "schools, churches, and non-profit community groups" instead of individuals to operate LP100s, the FCC seems to be compelling those individuals to form organizations to apply for LPFM licenses. So far, so good...but as brand-new creations, those organizations will fall behind on the FCC's point scheme when it comes to "established community presence" (with a few notable exceptions, like Steve Provizer's Community Media Coalition in Allston -- but then, there's no open LP100 channel there!). Even where there's a strong desire and committment to create such a group, the May filing window the FCC proposes doesn't leave much time for organizers to do all the legwork they'd need to form a licensee. That leaves us with schools, universities, and churches, precisely the groups that are already operating most of the full-power noncommercial stations on the dial.

Many of the remaining "NCE" (noncommercial educational) licenses are held by national religious broadcasters, and here we find another concern. If you've been reading NERW for any length of time, you know how we feel about the abuse of the translator rules that's yielded, in some cases, hundreds of translators around the country carrying the satellite feeds of single stations in Idaho or Oregon or California. The LPFM rules don't do enough to prevent this problem from getting worse. Here's why:

First, LPFMs will have to protect existing translators. This seems contrary to the definition of translators as a secondary service. It strains the bounds of logic to accept that a satellite-fed translator (explicitly barred from originating its own programming) provides greater service to a community than a local LPFM. Even where the translator is local (like the two in Boston/Cambridge, on 96.3 and 101.3), it often occupies the only frequencies on which an LP100 could settle. On the other hand, it might not matter, because...

Second, LPFMs can, if they wish, run 24/7/365 off a satellite. Maybe we're just being paranoid here, but it's easy enough to imagine the religious translator networks working hand-in-hand with local churches to dominate the LPFM spectrum. As established local entities, the churches would have little trouble securing LPFM licenses (and in fact, many churches already serve as "home bases" for satellite-fed translators). Giving up a few hours of Sunday morning airtime for local services would be a small price to pay for the big satellite groups. (The FCC seems to think it can solve this problem by forbidding LPFMs to rebroadcast full-power stations, but the rule doesn't say an LPFM can't run the same programming that a chain's full-power stations are running, does it now?)

Of course, Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth's statement raises another question that we hope will draw some attention in the months to come. Furchtgott-Roth believes NCE radio operations should be guided by the same rules the FCC introduced to noncommercial TV in its decision on the WQEX Pittsburgh case last month. (If you weren't paying attention -- and shame on you if that's the case, because this is important stuff -- the FCC warned religious broadcaster Cornerstone TV that religious services and individual religious testimony wouldn't count as "educational" programming if Cornerstone moved its WPCB-TV from a commercial channel to WQEX's channel *16 allocation. Cornerstone subsequently pulled out of the three-way deal with public broadcaster WQED and Paxson.)

The FCC knows this one is a political firebomb -- just look at the way the National Religious Broadcasters jumped on the WQEX case -- and is being especially cautious with religious radio, so we're hesitant to hope for much of a breakthrough here. Even the NAB, which has been so very noisy about the alleged "breakdown of the FM spectrum" by the creation of LPFM, has been utterly silent about the translators that are already operating with the same powers and spacing LP100 stations would use. Hypocrisy? Looks more like fear to us. (And we'll close this portion by reiterating, as we so often do, that we are in no way opposed to religious broadcasting per se, just to the way certain religious broadcasters have tried to monopolize the spectrum to the exclusion of other voices.)

So where were we here? Oh yeah, the public. Maybe we're just being pessimistic here, but it just doesn't seem likely to us that the groups most in need of new radio voices (for instance, the Hispanic community in Rochester, the black community in Syracuse, or the Asian communities in Lowell) will be able to get organized in time to make the FCC's May filing window for LP100. Individuals look to be largely shut out, for reasons explored above. And that leaves us with schools and churches, offering what's likely to be a minor expansion at best of the existing non-comm primary and translator service. (In Rochester, for instance, that's six high school and college stations and five religious broadcasters. We need more?)

That, by the way, is the good news. The bad news comes once the initial five-day filing window closes -- because a year later, out-of-town broadcasters can begin applying for the remaining LP100 channels, on the FCC theory that anything is better than an unoccupied allocation. What can an out-of-town broadcaster do with a noncomm license that will serve a distant community? We're not sure we want to find out...and we know we don't want to watch an overburdened FCC actually try to enforce any sort of local-content rules.

What, then, of LP10? We're a little more hopeful about this service, for two reasons. First, LP10 offers the promise of open channels where they're really needed -- in inner-city neighborhoods and suburbs where LP100 channels won't fit. Second, the barriers to entry are so low: a few thousand dollars for studio and inexpensive transmitting equipment, a rooftop, and you're on your way. (Sound familiar? We used to call it Class D FM, and if that hadn't been wiped out in the seventies, we might not have needed this whole LPFM mess!)

Our hope, though, remains tempered. It's one thing to want to start a radio station. It's another thing altogether to keep that radio station running through budget crises, staff infighting (the rule of thumb here is: the smaller the station, the worse the office politics, with KPFA a notable exception), and the inevitable realization that most people would still rather listen to "the hits of today and the best of the 80s, 90s, and 70s on the official workday station with less talk and 55-minute music sweeps" than to Whatever-LP. A few brave souls will pull it off, and to them we wish only the best of luck. As for the rest, we're at least pleased to see that the FCC will require them simply to turn back the license when they're done playing with it. The 1990s were all the evidence we needed of the effects of radio profiteering and speculation, and it's nice to see that the FCC noticed, too.

What now? No doubt the NAB will go to court in another attempt to prevent the FCC from enforcing the new rules, to which we can only offer the observation that even the big broadcasters must know there's something missing in their definition of "community service" if they're this worried about a bunch of 10-watt noncommercial voices. As for what happens once the NAB loses in court, as it no doubt will (you don't win against the FCC, after all) -- well, that will be the fun part of writing NERW in 2000.

Next week, we'll look at the things we saw and heard out West and in a quick jaunt down to the Big all the week's radio doings from Chautauqua to Charlottetown. See you Friday!

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