LPFM Expands…But Translators Still Dominate FM Crumbs

Last month the Pew Research Center published a short report on the growth of the LPFM radio service, following the conclusion of a 10-year legislative battle to expand it back to near the scope originally hoped by the FCC when it was first proposed in 1999-2000.
According to the report, since the passage of the Local Community Radio Act in 2011 and subequent filing windows for new LPFM construction permits, the number of licensed stations has nearly doubled, to more than 1,500 nationwide (including U.S territories and protectorates). Most states have more than 20 LPFM licensees, while California, Florida, and Texas clock in with the most (100+).
While Pew does highlight a few stations that are representing or speak to constituencies that have otherwise gone wholly unserved by traditional, full-power broadcasters, such as indigenous/ethnic communities, non-profit arts outlets, and even some municipal-run stations, it also notes that “[f]ive specific, self-identified radio formats accounted for 69% of the 1,536 LPFM stations, four of which are religious in nature,” which maps quite well with the formats of LPFMs licensed in the first go-round. About one-quarter of LPFMs self-classify as “variety” formats.
One anonymous but incisive commenter weighed in on the report, noting an important data-point that it does not address: the fact that more than 2,500 LPFM construction permits were actually awarded by the FCC, but “933 Low Power FM Stations (LPFMs) have died since the service was created just over 15 years ago. That is a shocking number of dead local FM stations.” (You can dive more deeply into those numbers here.)
It’s unclear whether the failure-rate of the most newly-granted LPFM stations will track with those granted in the first filing window, though Radio Survivor noted a few years back that a) station failure-rates for LPFMs (as a percentage of stations in the class) were nearly identical to those for full-power, non-commercial educational FM stations, and b) many LPFMs went off the air once they ran up against their initial license-renewal cycle.
This strikes at an Achilles’ heel of the LPFM service: the lack of long-term, sustainable funding. Sure, there’s a lot of enthusiasm around building the station itself, but hamstrung as they are by fairly miniscule power and antenna height, it’s difficult for most LPFMs to cover a listenership large enough from which to draw funding through traditional mechanisms, like pledge drives and underwriting. Furthermore, since LPFMs are explicitly mandated to be non-commercial in nature, that complicates the funding issue.
What Pew’s report does not do is provide a comparative analysis to the growth of FM translators over the same time period. In 2013 I ran the numbers of station-classes as provided by the FCC’s quarterly reports and discovered that, of all AM and FM classes, FM translators saw the most explosive growth, adding more than 2,000 to their ranks during the same time that nearly 1,000 LPFMs were licensed, and making them the second-most popular class of station license (just a few hundred behind commercial full-power FMs). Back then, translators outnumbered LPFMs by a factor of six to one.
According to the FCC’s latest station-census (as of June 30), the number of FM translators stands north of 6,800 – now the #1 class of licensed radio station in the country – while LPFMs top 1,500, bringing down the ratio between the two classes, but also representing a growth in translators relative to LPFM that is more than equivalent. Considering that nearly 900 FM translators or translator construction-permits changed hands in the last eight months alone – as AM broadcasters seek a foothold on what will most likely be the last broadcast band standing – we are highly unlikely to see an attrition of translators anywhere near comparable to the failure-rate of LPFMs.
In addition, the FCC plans to open yet another filing window for new FM translator stations next year…while there are no plans to open another LFPM filing window, perhaps ever again.
If the opportunity to legitimately open access to local airwaves is well and truly through, and the majority of LFPM stations have ended up simply expanding formats that were already well-entrenched on our radio dials, there’s little point in further lamentation. Best to concentrate efforts on protecting and sustaining those who were awarded the privilege of carving out some truly unique spectral-crumbs – and where they aren’t (or never were) available, to engage in extra-legal broadcasting which, in many respects, has become more popular now than at any time in U.S. broadcast history.