LPFM: Better Luck Next Year

The first session of the 111th Congress is now in the bag, and with it – temporarily – the hopes of a restoration of the FCC’s low-power FM (LPFM) radio service to its original scale and scope as devised by the FCC in 2000.
The Local Community Radio Act passed the House, but never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. Fortunately, bills only die at the end of the Congressional year, not between sessions; meaning, theoretically, when the Senate reconvenes next month it could quickly hold a vote and send the bill to President Obama for signature.
At that point, it’ll be up to the FCC to begin a new rulemaking to revise the technical rules of LPFM and open up application windows for new LPFM licensees. Relaxation of interference-protection rules for LPFM stations will not provide a mega-bounty of new station opportunities – unless and until the FCC makes room for LPFM stations of 10 watts or less (the “LP-10” station class, which already exists in the FCC’s current rules but for which applications have never been allowed).
Although all the tea-leaves point to the notion that the FCC is poised to “fast-track” any LPFM “expansion,” that regulatory process will still take several months at least.
Part of me is very satisfied to know that LPFM advocates are only two formal legislative steps away from expanding LPFM’s potential. But a larger part of me realizes that a decade has passed since LPFM first became a hot-button issue, and a lot has changed since then: listener habits, spectral capacity, and the introduction of new technologies which are effectively redefining what we identify as “radio.”
In a nutshell, LPFM has been subjected to the law of diminishing returns. Crumbs are still to be had, and we deserve those crumbs – but they’re still crumbs, and an even smaller pile now than what was possible 10 years ago. In historical terms, the creation of the LPFM service itself really constituted the “victory” – Pyrrhic as it might have been; any “expansion,” at this point, will not materially affect the U.S. media environment.
A new decade will see us (hopefully) rectify an injustice done in the last one; in the grand scheme of things, that’s a bittersweet accomplishment.