More LPFM in 2009? Keep Hope Alive

And the operative word here is, indeed, “hope.” The Local Community Radio Act has been reintroduced in Congress. Honestly, I’ve lost track of the number of times that a bill to undo the 2001 legislative evisceration of the FCC’s Low-Power FM radio service has been put forward; this year it’s come out of the starting gate with more momentum than ever – something like two dozen sponsors in the House (there is no companion bill yet in the Senate).
Media reform groups are putting out the call for the citizen-calvary to flood lawmakers with correspondence asking for quick action on this legislation. While it never hurts to raise the profile of this languishing yet important issue, a reality check is called for as well.
The main point of the LCRA is to remove the overly-strict channel-separation rules applied to LPFM stations. This last-minute change to the FCC’s rules by Congressional fiat in 2001 lowered the number of potential LPFM stations in the United States from several thousand to just under 1K, and almost none of them are located within major metropolitan areas (i.e., where the majority of U.S. citizens and radio-listeners live).
However, removing this restriction doesn’t do much to free up spectrum-space for LPFM: it looks good on paper, but back in 2003 religious broadcasters flooded the FCC with several thousand applications for FM translator stations. This “Great Translator Invasion” effectively put paper-deeds on many open frequencies which, if the LCRA was passed, would still be “reserved” for an expansion of godcasting networks. Until the FCC sorts out the “Great Translator Invasion” – which it has fully yet to do – there will be no bounty of spectrum for new LPFM stations, even if Congress were to give the go-ahead for an “expansion” of LPFM.
Secondly, there is a substantial, discriminatory disparity within the FCC’s regulations regarding the status of translator stations – which broadcast with up to 250 watts and cannot originate local programming – and LPFM stations, which are capped at 100 watts and are required to be “live and local,” at least for one-third of the day. Even though translators are more powerful than LPFM stations and yet provide less local service than an LPFM station ever might (except for those LPFM stations that are being run as de-facto translators already), translators are considered a more important service in the eyes of the FCC than are LPFM stations.
Until LPFM stations are granted the same regulatory parity and protection from interference as translator stations are, effectively shed of their status as “second-class citizens” on the FM dial to instruments like translator stations, LPFM advocates are still scooting for crumbs.
These, you will note, are primarily technical issues – which are much better resolved at the level of the FCC than in Congress (after all, it was Congress who mucked up LPFM in the first place). First, Congress must give the FCC permission to re-expand LPFM out to its original service parameters as first outlined in 1999; then, the FCC needs to re-write some of its rules regarding the primacy and priority of services provided on the FM band; then, the FCC needs to clean up the Great Translator Invasion mess so that a viable, meaningful LPFM window can be opened.
You may also note that only one of these three steps involves Congress, and the LCRA is but step one in a long process of bringing LPFM up to its useful potential.
Which brings us back to the question: will we see more LPFM in 2009? Even if Congress were to somehow magically act expeditiously on this issue (as if there aren’t more pressing issues on the plate – the economy, climate change, the “war on terror,” etc.), the rubber meets the road at the FCC. And it’s anyone’s guess just who will constitute the FCC at this stage: we have a solid idea of the anointed Chairman, but there’s still at least two (if not three) open seats yet to be decided. The latest buzz is all the new Commissioners may be nominated and confirmed as a “package,” and if so, that may take some time. LPFM is not at the top of the FCC’s own policy-radar right now (think DTV transition, net neutrality, broadband proliferation, etc.) And there’s still that pesky (yet powerful) broadcast lobby to worry about.
If I were a betting man, I would not put money down on seeing a bona-fide expansion of LPFM in 2009. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, all the twists and turns of this (mostly) technical tale can be un-kinked by next year. But reform in this particular vein is a slow and incremental process, which is why we must repeatedly go through the process of expressing political will, because each time, a bit more ground gets gained. This may pain some who prefer more radical action (which is still a viable option), but such is how the game is played in Washington.
I feel for my friend Pete Tridish; he’s working-full time in D.C. right now as the titular point on the LCRA advocacy effort. He’s the kind of man who’d rather hang several hundred feet in the air by a sling hanging antennas than spending long time in a tie. But if he’s willing to make that sacrifice, then the hope for an LPFM expansion must be real.