FCC: LPFM a Tiny Fish in Big Pond

The FCC has released its long-awaited economic assessment of the LPFM radio service. Although the need for such a study was initially dismissed as unnecessary more than eight years ago, the commercial broadcast lobby forced the agency to conduct the research as part of the compromise which allowed for the passage of the Local Community Radio Act last year.
Radio Survivor’s Paul Riismandel has a good overview of the report and its findings. More detail below on salient points:
Snapshot of the LPFM service. The majority of the 835 active LPFM stations identified by the FCC were built in 2004 and 2005. (In contrast, the average full-power commercial FM station is 30 years old.) The average power of an LPFM station is 75 watts, and average antenna height is 21 meters (the maximum power allowed is 100 watts, and max antenna height is 30 meters). The two most popular programming formats for LPFM stations are Religion (49.4%) and Miscellaneous (32.9%).
LPFM listenership is infinitesimal. The FCC’s examination of 2009 Arbitron ratings “revealed that LPFM stations are listened to by less than 0.2 percent of the radio-listening population and that LPFM listening represents less than 0.1 percent of total radio listening.” More than half of all LPFM stations are located outside of the ~300 Arbitron-ranked markets, in “mostly rural areas covering only 19.2 percent of the U.S. population.”
Of those LPFMs in radio markets measured by Arbitron, more than two-thirds have a listenership too small to be accurately measured. On average, “13 LPFM stations would need to enter both the Arbitron Metro and contour of [a] full-service commercial FM station before the effect on [the commercial station’s] Arbitron ratings would become discernible.”
The “LPFM Industry” is a marginal one. The FCC concluded that “LPFM stations do not currently have, and in the future are unlikely to have, a demonstrable economic impact on full-service commercial FM radio stations.” LPFM stations “operate with very small budgets, rely on mostly part-time and volunteer staff, do not have measurable ratings, have limited population reach, and do not generate significant underwriting earnings.”
Interference hurts the little guy. The geographic coverage of a full-time commercial station is about 55 times larger than an LPFM station. As part of the study, the FCC conducted in-depth interviews with eight LPFM station mangers: “All but one…stated that the low power of the station poses a significant problem and that they would like to operate at a higher power.” Many “were concerned about problems with reception in their existing coverage areas. Some…emphasized in-home reception issues, noting that LPFM…signals often are unable to penetrate the walls of a home.” LPFM station managers “also expressed frustration with interference from full-service commercial FM stations, especially in unfavorable weather conditions.”
If anything, this report definitively debunks the hype and propaganda commercial and public broadcasters used so effectively to stymie the promulgation of a meaningful LFPM service in the first place. The next – and most likely last – opportunity to apply for new LPFM station licenses may occur by this fall.