LPFM's Second Wave

Congratulations to everyone who worked tirelessly – both over the last 10 years and the last two weeks – to convince Congress to finally approve the Local Community Radio Act. Given the recent changes in the political winds of D.C., this was most likely the very last chance to fundamentally expand the LPFM radio service.
Things literally came down to the wire: after locking the bill in stasis for months with secret holds from industry-friendly Senators, last-minute negotiations between LPFM proponents and the National Association of Broadcasters, combined with a multi-faceted grassroots lobbying blitz, ended up in a hasty rewrite of the actual legislation, which the House quickly approved on Friday and the Senate blessed on Saturday. President Obama’s signature is a given.
The technicalities of the bill are short but significant. The major accomplishment of the LCRA is to remove the third-adjacent channel restriction on the service that crippled LPFM stations from gaining traction in urban areas (eight years ago Jonathan Jay devised a simple barstool analogy that explains what adjacent-channel rules mean).
The relaxation of this restriction was key: it now will allow hundreds of new LPFM stations to be built in areas where they were previously prohibited. This goes a long way to restoring the technical scope of LPFM as first intended by the FCC 10 years ago.
However, to get the National Association of Broadcasters to remove its deathly opposition to the bill, extra “interference-protection” restrictions will be implemented on LPFM stations that prevent the restoration of the full scope of the FCC’s initial proposal.
In addition, LPFM and translator stations often find themselves in competition for a frequency. Both station-classes are secondary to full-power FM stations, but translators retain the flexibility to site themselves closer to full-power stations than LPFM stations can.
To wit: translators can use open frequencies just two clicks away on the dial from a local full-power station, while LPFMs are limited to staying three clicks away (down from four, thanks to the LCRA). Thus, a regulatory bias for the proliferation of translators over LPFMs remains.
However, when a proposed LPFM or translator are in competition for the same frequency in a given location, the LCRA requires the FCC to take the “needs of the local community” into consideration – a key metric that LPFMs do best – to break such applicant-ties.
Full-power stations gained increased leverage to complain to the FCC about any LPFM-related interference, and the FCC is mandated to act expeditiously to “remediate” these “complaints.” This could cause headaches for LPFM stations in communities with hostile broadcast-neighbors, but should not be a widespread, significant issue in the service’s expansion.
Finally, the FCC is required to conduct an economic analysis of LPFM’s impact on full-power stations. This study must be completed within a year. For what it’s worth, this type of analysis was originally dismissed as unnecessary by the first Congressionally-mandated LPFM-impact report in 2003 – but the FCC does not have to wait to open new LPFM application-windows until the study is done.
As a result, given the agency’s prior promises, it should open a new LPFM license-application window sometime in 2011.
Given the increasingly tenuous democratic nature of our media environment (see network neutrality, the merger of Comcast with NBC, overzealous Internet crackdowns in the name of intellectual property, the aggressive persecution of WikiLeaks, the fast-developing field of cyberwar, etc.), the unleashing of a second wave of LPFM stations 10 years after the service’s creation is small potatoes relative to the situation that exists today. Still, any light in dark times is heartening and welcome – and if you believe, like I do, that real change happens from the bottom up, the coming new wave of LPFM stations represent the planting of more seeds.
As an historical accomplishment, the passage of the LCRA marks the capstone of a 70-year movement to create and sustain real community radio in the United States. Pragmatically, it marks the formal end of a tenacious legislative campaign to broaden LPFM’s proliferation, which will allow intrepid folks like the Prometheus Radio Project to devote their resources to building radio stations.
The NAB can afford to appear magnanimous now. After bottling the bill until the last possible moment, and engineering its passage on the Saturday before Christmas (in conjunction with the Senate’s deliberation of more newsworthy legislation), it’s minimized the public’s awareness of this important marker that represents the art of the possible in the poisonous world of media policy.
Strategically, the NAB’s playing for higher stakes to define the next decade of terrestrial radio as we know it, and expending the political capital to deny an amicable resolution to the LPFM issue simply wasn’t worth it anymore. That’s why the trade association is inviting LPFM advocates to a party at NAB HQ sometime after the new year.
What began as a contemporary movement of electronic civil disobedience has ended with a renewed opportunity to (legally) expand community radio in this country. There’s still much work to do to exploit this potential, but that’s in good hands.