LPFM: Crowded Field, Slim Pickings

2001 has been a less-than-stellar year for the FCC’s newborn low power FM radio (LPFM) service. Nearly two years have passed since LPFM’s adoption, and it’s been a year since Congress eviscerated the plan, leaving the FCC to implement only a fraction of the new stations it was planning to.
It’s a long time to watch and wait, and so far there are less new LPFM stations on the air then there are fingers on two hands. Many potential station applicants are waiting patiently for a cooperative but hobbled bureaucracy to do the mountain of paperwork generated by thousands of filings.
Some are fighting for their life because of competing applications. Religious groups have snapped up just about half of the construction permits given out for new stations so far, but other major players in the race for the airwaves are state and local governments.
One of the main agencies of government most interested in LPFM have been various state Departments of Transportation, who envision a chain of LPFM stations broadcasting traffic, weather, construction and accident reports along their highways and byways.
Competing applicants find themselves in conflict simply because only one of them will ultimately get the broadcast license. The pickings are slim to begin with, and nobody likes to lose.
Which brings us to an interesting conflict that has developed between aspiring LPFM hopefuls in Colorado. They are two unlikely foes: a community group and the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Minturn Public Radio vs. CDOT
When the rush for LPFM licenses began, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) got right into the thick of it. The agency is planning a network of radio stations to broadcast road advisories through its network of pavement that weaves through the sometimes-treacherous Rocky Mountains.
It sounds like a laudable goal. But of the nearly four dozen applicants to make the first cut for Colorado LPFM frequencies, 12 of them – a little more than 25% – are potential CDOT “Traveler Information Stations.”
Two of the 12 conflict with station applications filed by community groups. One is a college in Steamboat Springs; the other is Minturn Public Radio, who hopes to broadcast locally-produced music, news and commentary to the Eagle Valley area.
Minturn is not new to grassroots broadcasting; a few years ago, an outfit called Radio Free Minturn graced the airwaves there, germinating the idea for a station the community could call its own (the two entities are not connected now for legal reasons).
According to the FCC’s LPFM rules, governments applying for public safety-type radio stations can file multiple applications, but they must designate ONE of those as their “priority” station. That one application will be treated with the same rights as all other applicants – but any others that compete with single applicants will be dismissed outright.
That has not stopped CDOT officials from trying to circumvent the restriction; early on they petitioned the FCC to treat all 16 of their initial applications as “priorities.”
The arrogance of such a move is astounding. It’s as if CDOT doesn’t seem to care if it squashes a community’s potential voice in its fervor to broadcast about potholes and slippery spots on Interstate 70.
In the state’s defense, transportation officials say the rugged terrain of western Colorado isn’t good for broadcasting advisories on the AM band like it does in the east, where there’s already a network of LPAM information stations up and running.
The fact remains, though, that the state won’t work with the locals – and the locals are not happy.
“Intransigence and unwillingness”
At first, CDOT was given the benefit of the doubt – maybe Colorado’s road bureaucrats didn’t understand the FCC’s intent with LPFM. But when Timothy Bryendlson, the president of Minturn Public Radio found about the conflict between their application and one of CDOT’s, he contacted the agency to try to work things out.
Multiple meetings with underlings in the agency met with continued refusals to budge. Finally, in a November 19 letter to CDOT’s Executive Director, Tom Norton, Bryendlson wrote:
“FCC officials have confirmed that…our applications will receive priority over the CDOT’s when FCC administrators eventually decide…But with thousands of applications to wade through, we have been informed that this could take a year or longer. FCC officials therefore suggested that we contact the your organization directly, as the only way to expedite our applications is for CDOT to withdraw applications that conflict with ours.
While we believe that CDOT’s intention to expand its statewide broadcast network is a reasonable one, your agency has inadvertently disregarded the needs of its constituents for community access to the airwaves.”
Instead of responding directly to the group’s appeal, Norton and CDOT went back to the FCC and asked that Minturn Public Radio look for somewhere else on the dial!
There aren’t that many open frequencies around Minturn, and the FCC has already indicated that it wouldn’t allow LPFM applicants to go back and change proposed frequencies. That was no solution at all, and was worse than being snubbed directly.
In a second letter to Norton, Bryendlson expressed his disbelief: “[This] is not, in fact, a bona fide effort to resolve the situation, but rather an attempt to diffuse criticism of his department’s intransigence and unwillingness to find a workable solution to our dispute.”
This really isn’t much of a battle at all – according to the FCC’s own rules, Minturn Public Radio and and Colorado Mountain College will get their LPFM frequencies. But if the state doesn’t cede in this dispute, two local voices for the Eagle Valley will stay silent for much longer than they have to – it’s already been longer than they deserve.
If there ever was a case to be made for a sore loser, it’s a state agency intentionally stonewalling a local application for a community radio station. Hopefully, if there’s any sanity left in CDOT, the agency will simply pull over and let the grassroots broadcasters pass them by.