If you haven’t filed comments with the FCC on MM-9925, the proposal for creation of a low power FM radio service, your time is running out. Comments must be in the hands of the Commission by August 2. They don’t have to be as detailed as these, but you should send in something, even if it’s a one-sentence email saying “I think LPFM is a good idea.”
Don’t let this opportunity pass you by! So far more than 900 comments have been filed on the LPFM proposal, and the vast majority are in favor of the idea.
These comments are officially filed! Now, onto the fun:
FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION
445 Twelfth Street S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20554
(In the Matter of MM 99-25
(Creation of a RM-9208;
(Low Power Radio Service RM-9242
WRITTEN COMMENTS OF JOHN NATHAN ANDERSON
I must have picked a bad time to get into radio broadcasting as a career. I am 25 years old, and have been involved in radio for nine years now. My first experience was on the college radio station in my hometown (WBCR-FM, Beloit, WI) at the age of 16. I was captivated by the medium’s ability to engage people in discussion and open minds with alternative programming (which college radio has become so adept at), all while simply sitting in a room twiddling knobs and pushing buttons.
I have also dabbled in unlicensed broadcasting; shortly after becoming involved with WBCR, the station replaced its transmission equipment, from transmitter to antenna bays. A high school friend and I were able to borrow the equipment (WBCR was extremely loose management-wise in those days) and set it up at his house in Roscoe, IL, just over the WI/IL border. We had fun for about three weeks, until the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department began sniffing around the subdivision my friend lived in, investigating complaints of interference. We promptly shut down and returned the equipment to WBCR, who later sold it.
Going to Valparaiso (IN) University in 1992 for a meteorology degree, I soon realized I could not comprehend calculus (required learning for a B.S. in meteorology), and somehow wandered over to WVUR, VU’s 36-watt (Class D-grandfathered) FM radio outlet. I was immediately hooked, and began considering broadcasting as a career choice.
I eventually changed my major to Communications, and worked my way up WVUR’s management chain – first as News Director, then as Music Director and General Manager for two years. I also led an unsuccessful effort to change WVUR’s frequency and bump its wattage up into the Class A station range; Valparaiso’s proximity to the Chicago metropolitan area made it difficult to find an open frequency, but we did – and we completed all the necessary FCC forms and applications to begin such a process, only to have the University Administration change its stance on the application as we were in the process of filing it. WVUR still exists today, putting out its 36 watts at 95.1 FM – although with an overdue and much-needed equipment upgrade to its broadcast and transmission facilities.
During this time, I was able to wangle part-time work out of the local commercial broadcast properties – WAKE-AM and WLJE-FM. This eventually evolved into a part-time news position – and it was in my sophomore year that I covered the crash of a commuter plane in Roselawn, IN, which led to my serious consideration of a career in broadcast journalism.
Shortly before graduation from VU in 1996, I accepted a full-time news reporter/anchor position with WAKE/WLJE, which I held for more than a year upon graduation. Once my wife finished her degree in 1997, we moved to Madison, WI, where she pursued her Master’s degree. I worked as a news reporter/anchor for WTDY-AM, and have since moved on to the morning anchor/reporter position with the Wisconsin Radio Network, which provides news stories and programming for 55 radio stations in the state.
In the midst of all this, I became involved with an online service originally called The Mining Company, now named About.com, where I develop and maintain a site as the service’s Pirate/Free Radio Guide (http://pirateradio.about.com). I have been watching and reporting extensively on the low power radio movement since before the discussions surrounding RM-9208 and RM-9242 began.
II. EXPLANATION OF INTEREST
I find myself in a most peculiar position. As a professional radio broadcaster, I am also one of only a handful who have been willing to openly engage in public discussions about the viability of low power FM. I am also even one of a smaller handful who will actually go on record in support of the current FCC proposal. Luckily, my employer, Learfield Communications, is well aware of my stance on this controversial issue and has made no moves to hinder my expression of opinion (although I keep my job and my advocacy separate).
If there has been one area of the radio industry decimated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it has been radio journalism. The state of radio news is currently at its most pathetic in its half-century history. Consolidation has led to many stations dropping news coverage, as it is a programming area where the costs outweigh the potential for generating income. In Madison, WI, there are only two radio stations out of more than a dozen who provide more than a token nod to covering local events and issues – actually providing regular newscasts throughout their broadcast schedule and having multiple bodies in the newsroom.
Both of these stations, however, are part of larger clusters – which means the newsroom staffs must work to provide news to multiple stations. At WAKE/WLJE, I watched the newsroom dwindle from four people to two, and when I left to move to Wisconsin, I was not replaced. This trend is a rampant one. WAKE/WLJE is a family-owned duopoly, and has been presented with the need to cut costs to continue competing at a level corporate clusters (who have bought up nearly all of the broadcast properties in Northwest Indiana) can maintain.
This presents me with a dilemma – one of ‘upward mobility’ in my chosen field. Without even going into detail about the number of radio journalists who have been displaced as their stations phased out the newsroom, those of us still lucky to remain ‘in the business’ find ourselves without many opportunities to advance our careers, as there’s so many people competing for so few employment opportunities. For example: In Chicago, the only two all-news radio outlets (WBBM and WMAQ-AM) are now owned by a single corporate entity, who has been pursuing a process of newsroom attrition, using people from one station on the other – thereby reducing the overall number of radio journalists it needs to cover its service area. For someone not (yet) in a major market, this development does not lend itself to optimism of or opportunity for advancement.
If radio stations are slashing the very best mechanism available to them which allows them to be an outlet for informing their communities on the issues and events that affect their listeners, and provides them with the best example of performing a ‘public service,’ then what is radio becoming? We’ll touch on that later.
III. NEED FOR A LOW POWER RADIO SERVICE
A. Consolidation Issues – Ownership
You have heard from hundreds of other commenters about what effects the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has had on the radio industry and, hopefully, heard it with your own ears. Broadcast conglomerates have found it more economically viable to program multiple stations with a single source, syndicating ‘winning personalities’ into dozens of markets. This has, obviously, cut the numbers and diversity of voices with access to the airwaves by a considerable margin, while radio’s profit margin has skyrocketed. Cities and towns with their ‘own’ radio stations used to take pride in crafting a locally-produced ‘sound’ – be it by format or personality. Now that large broadcast groups have bought out many of these stations, they’ve been turned into profitable clones of operations in other markets.
The fact that such a diverse group of people are clamoring for the FCC to create a low power radio service should go to show that it’s not one segment of the population feeling the loss of access. Low power radio would be able to provide the service that traditional stations have shunned – becoming an information collection and dissemination point for community groups ranging from churches to unions to schools. The fact that the desire for such a service is coming from such a wide range of people currying different beliefs and backgrounds should also point to the general public’s dissatisfaction with the state of the traditional broadcast industry. Not to mention those 13,000 inquiries a year the Commission gets from parties interested in starting up their own stations.
B. Consolidation Issues – Licensing
One of the first actions a radio conglomerate makes when it assimilates stations from smaller markets is to attempt to transform them into what are called ‘rimshot stations’ – often applying for a construction permit to allow a change of location for the station’s transmission facilities. The hope is to move the station’s signal pattern and coverage area into nearby larger markets, where the ‘real money’ can be made. Several stations that have previously served the smaller communities outside of Madison and Milwaukee have, over the past couple of years, been transformed into rimshots, labeling themselves as Madison or Milwaukee-based stations when their studios and offices are nowhere near these metropolitan areas. This has effectively decimated smaller communities’ access to the airwaves – rimshots have no desire to provide service to the public they locate their broadcast facilities in when their signal is designed to catch the ear of a community miles away.
Rules allowing the consolidation of public files at one central location for many stations, and the reduction in the amount of information information required for those files, has also restricted the public’s ability to provide even limited oversight of broadcasters’ operations. Deregulation has allowed broadcasters freer reign to pursue their own interests rather than the interests of the public they are supposedly required to serve.
C. Loss of Credibility in the Medium
Organizations representing the broadcasting industry have been touting the fact that both listenership and revenue have jumped since the Telecom Act of ’96 was enacted. The problem is that the focus of radio programming has changed, and with the increased reliance on syndication and automation there has been a loss of interaction with its listeners. Radio listeners today see the medium as aural wallpaper, tuning it in to provide a soothing background noise – as opposed to tuning in and capturing their attention or as a source of information.
Sure, radio listenership has gone up – if you count me, in the chair of my dentist’s office, being forced to hear one of the local ‘lite music’ stations blaring throughout the office speakers, as a listener. It is ironic because when radio first begin as a mass medium, listeners used to sit in front of their sets, captivated by what they were hearing. That has slowly changed, and with the consolidation of the past few years, ‘active listening’ has all but disappeared. Even as a journalist representing a network of 55 stations, I’m often shunned by both public figures and the public itself as insignificant – and it sometimes makes me ashamed to be a part of it all. Low power radio may not reverse this trend in the traditional broadcast industry, but will bring back some of the qualities that made radio such an effective mass communications medium in the first place – and, at the very least, give people a reason to truly listen again.
IV. TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS
A. IBOC Reconsideration
Much has been said about the ‘scarcity’ of space on the FM broadcast band for new low power radio stations. The National Association of Broadcasters’ entire argument against such a service focuses on this; the primary brick in its foundation deals with the uncertainty of what potential interference LPFM might create when digital radio comes to fruition.
This entire argument could be circumvented if the radio broadcast industry in the United States adopted the Eureka 147 system of digital audio broadcasting, which has been endorsed by virtually every other nation in the civilized world and the World Radio Congress. Not only does it provide a completely new area of the radio spectrum for the radio industry to work with, but it is much more efficient with its use of channel space and provides a higher-quality signal.
Unfortunately, the rights held by the chunk of radio spectrum Eureka 147 uses are currently held by the United States armed forces, who are apparently unwilling to give up control of them. This is a perfect example where the FCC’s mission of serving the ‘public interest’ is called into question – if we are able to provide traditional radio broadcast properties with a new area of the spectrum to set up shop on, and at the same time open up another area of the radio spectrum (the FM broadcast band) for low power station use, are we not serving the public interest more than if we allow the status quo – jamming both onto one range of frequencies to preserve the exclusive radio domain of test pilots and telemetry equipment?
Arguments against the adoption of Eureka 147 technology over IBOC also comment on the marketplace drawbacks – if radio stations used Eureka 147 instead of IBOC, listeners would have to buy completely new receivers to listen to the new signal. This dilemma is playing itself out right now with the implementation of Digital Television (DTV) – whose signal is completely incompatible with the televisions Americans use today. If this mandate works for DTV, why not use it for digital radio? Consumers will still have to go out and get new receivers to enjoy the full audio-quality improvement IBOC broadcasting will provide, so using that caveat as a reason to discount the use of Eureka 147 in the United States makes little sense. Please reconsider the use of IBOC digital broadcasting – it is both bad management of the radio spectrum and of lesser quality than what consumers deserve.
B. Relaxation of Channel Spacing
Current FCC allotment rules are hopelessly outdated and have not kept up with the gains in technology made in radio transmitters and receivers. Getting rid of third-channel adjacent protection is long overdue, and second-channel protection is also unnecessary. Radio stations today, if they maintain a clean signal, shouldn’t have any overlap outside of adjacent channels anyway – some of the reasons they do today aren’t due to a lack of proper technology, but a lack of proper maintenance. Another group of victims in the fast-paced industry consolidation have been broadcast engineers – instead of being responsible for maintaining one or two transmitters, many engineers now have to oversee five or six of them with no increase (and, in all too many cases a decrease) in engineering staff. It would be an interesting study indeed if somebody compared the number of times a station’s transmitter seriously drifted off-frequency to the size of the staff dedicated to maintaining that air chain – with only so many hours in a day, it’s tough for broadcast engineers to maintain not only multiple transmission facilities, but the technical challenges present in a station cluster’s studios and offices.
Even when looking at the current LPFM proposal, the only class of proposed station that could even remotely stir the fears of traditional broadcasters is the LP1000. Even so, nobody is proposing changing the limits of protected service contours of existing stations, so these fears appear to be ungrounded at best, and arrogant at worst – laying claim to coverage areas not protected by FCC regulations. Considering the subject of IBOC and channel spacing, USA Digital Radio said it best in its own petition for IBOC digital broadcasting, claiming the amount of interference an IBOC system would cause to a second channel adjacent station is “minimal.”
It should also be said that many of the current examples of stations experiencing interference to their operations by current unlicensed broadcasters do not and should not represent the effects of a legal, organized low power radio system. Many of those unlicensed stations currently on the air abide by technical rules of their own design – which, unfortunately, are sorely lacking in the eyes of any responsible broadcaster. In fact, those examples represent the ‘bad apples’ of unlicensed broadcasting – there are many more examples of unlicensed stations who do no harm to anyone and are operated with the utmost technical care. A licensed low power radio station will be forced into compliance with spacing and interference rules by the sheer requirement of a broadcast license – not to mention any other engineering regulations put in place.
Because of a lack of data on the ability of receivers to discern between a full-power radio station on one channel and a low power station on a nearby frequency, it is also imperative that any receiver studies of this kind use ‘real world’ standards – the way a digital car radio responds in such a situation would be much different from the way a cheap Walkman would, and such studies can be skewed to show one conclusion over another simply by the kind of receivers used by it. Receiver manufacturers could also improve on their circuitry design to make a more sensitive reception tool – it could be done with minimal overall cost to the manufacturer and the consumer, as it’s just a question of adding a few more circuit-size components to improve selectivity and filtering.
Overall, the use of minimum distance separation to define available channels is an acceptable policy, both for planning and logistical reasons. It is my understanding that the FCC is currently working on a program to compute available channels for low power FM stations, and REC Networks has a similar tool already online (at http://www.recnet.com/rec/lpfm/chs-rec.htm) which could be modified to fit the needs of whatever low power radio proposal is created and give potential applicants a ‘snapshot’ of what to expect for the licensing process.
C. Regulation of Use – LP1000
I personally believe a thousand-watt radio station is NOT low power radio. If the Commission absolutely feels the need to license such radio stations, they should take the issue up separate from (although concurrent with) the current proposal. The impetus for the LP1000 idea apparently stems from RM-9242, whose author has applied for several FM station construction permits already throughout the southern United States; this action does not correspond to the Commission’s own stated goal of increasing diversity on and access to the airwaves, but rather reflects one man’s attempt to stake a claim to a channel that is difficult to get now. The argument that a viable commercial or community-service-oriented station can not be operated with less than a thousand watts is absurd. Proponents of such a station should scale back their business plan to fit appropriate power levels – not have the FCC scale up the proposed power levels to fit their own goals.
The only exception to this would be in sparsely populated rural areas, or in places where topography makes an FM signal of a lower power very difficult to receive. LP1000 stations, if allowed, should be restricted from metropolitan areas outside of the top 200 media markets (double the REC Networks proposal). A better wattage cap for low power radio would be a top tier of LP500 or even LP250 stations (with a maximum antenna height of 60 meters HAAT); if the goal here is to add as many ‘new voices’ to the FM broadcast band as possible, it’s best to keep the maximum allowable wattage as small as possible.
However, if LP1000 stations are allowed, they should have primary status in regard to full-power stations both existing and proposed; should provide the same interference protection that full-power stations are currently required to do, and should be allowed to bump those translators currently in place. The majority of translators in use are, themselves, outlets of endless syndication (mostly for ‘religious organizations’), have been allowed through gross abuse of the FCC’s rules regarding translator stations, and serve little in the way of public interest. LP1000 stations should also be allowed the use of auxiliary broadcast frequencies (like studio-to-transmitter links), subject to the applicable rules already in place.
D. Regulation of Use – LP100
This is the real ‘meat’ of the low power radio proposal – 100 watts at 60 meters HAAT (NOT 30) allows a coverage area significant enough to make operation both financially and popularly viable enough for full-time operation. Doubling the allowable antenna height from what is currently proposed would allow LP100 stations to operate with greater coverage areas; the trade-off here would help LP100 stations adequately cover areas that might otherwise be possibly eligible for LP1000 stations, but where one LP1000 would kill the possibility for multiple LP100s. It would also make the exclusion of LP1000 stations from the top 200 media markets a viable option. Once again, the rule of thumb here is to maximize the number of potential entrants to the broadcast band while providing stations with enough power to adequately serve the public interest. Additionally, LP100 stations should also be allowed the use of auxiliary broadcast frequencies subject to current regulation.
LP100 stations should be given what I propose is a ‘modified primary’ status – secondary to existing full-power stations, but with primary protection from those applying for full-power operations on the same or adjacent channels. LP100 stations should also be allowed the ability to bump existing translators. In the event of an existing full-power station finding it necessary to bump an existing LP100, the affected station should be awarded the ability to relocate to any viable channel – including those where applications for full-power stations have been made, but not approved. The idea is to prevent the silencing of an existing low power station at the expense of creating more of the status quo. To not allow LP100 stations such protection defeats the purpose of putting one on the air, except in cases where the construction of new full-power stations are technically impossible.
Within the low power radio system, LP100 stations should not be considered secondary to LP1000s – the two should be judged on an equal footing. LP1000 applicants should not be allowed to bump existing LP100s, and any proposed LP1000 should be required to provide the same interference protection for existing LP100s in the area as it would for existing full-power stations. However, if this ‘modified primary’ status were allowed LP100 stations, they too must abide by the same interference protocols LP1000 and full-power stations must abide by. This class of station, if given the proper flexibility and protection for its coverage area, would allow the maximum amount of new stations with the minimum amount of disruption to current broadcast outlets, and is destined to be the most effective class of low power radio station to meet the Commission’s general goals.
E. Regulation of Use – LP10
This is the class of station that is dearest to this broadcaster’s heart. LP10 stations would provide broadcasters the ability to use the medium in a way it hasn’t been used in decades – as an art form. Individuals or collectives could use LP10 stations to provide the types of programming which may not be viable for higher-power operations, either financially or logistically. The LP10 would be the perfect outlet for serious ‘hobby’ broadcasters and those wanting to provide very specialized programming which, while not as ‘important’ as full-service LP1000 and LP100 stations, still deserve an outlet on the airwaves and should be considered as serving the public interest. Personally, as a broadcaster with a full-time job, and LP10 would give myself and others like me, who feel they can contribute significantly to the ‘radio dial’ in their community the opportunity to do so (and in ways their employers don’t allow), but can’t afford the time or expense of an LP1000 or LP100 station.
The technical specifications of an LP10 service also provide the best ability to promote diversity on the airwaves with the least amount of impact. 10 watts ERP maximum at 30 meters HAAT is plenty to provide this kind of service, and a one-watt minimum is also acceptable. LP10 stations should be secondary to all other stations, including translators, unless they are located in an area where even an LP100 is technically impossible, and the applicant plans to operate the LP10 in the manner of an LP100 or LP1000 (see Part V, section B). LP10 stations should not be allowed use of auxiliary broadcast frequencies, as a single location should be more than adequate for both studio and transmission facilities.
LP10 stations would need to provide co-channel and first adjacent channel protection to all other stations, including fellow LP10s. ‘Time-sharing’ of a channel by multiple LP10s should not be allowed – if multiple entities develop a mutual interest in a channel, they should work together to provide one station that serves the public interest in a greater capacity than multiple LP10s with the potential to negate each other’s coverage. This would also reduce the amount of licensing and regulation burden the Commission might have to deal with if it allows such a class of station.
I cannot state strongly enough how useful the LP10 station class could possibly be. There are many potential broadcasters out there who simply want to have an outlet for their creativity, but either can not or will not provide the amount of resources necessary to establish and maintain an LP1000 or LP100 station. These people have much they can contribute to their communities, and an LP10 would allow them to do that. Additionally, many of the unlicensed broadcasters already on the air fall into the LP10 class, and providing them and those considering ‘pirate radio’ with a mechanism to do so legally would not only reduce the burden on the Commission’s Compliance and Information bureau but would also foster a level of participation in community broadcasting not even remotely possible with LP1000 and LP100-class stations. If you do nothing else, please allow a 10 watt or less secondary service, and do not discount its potential!
F. Use of Type-Accepted Equipment
This is a no-brainer. Type acceptance should be mandatory for ANY low power radio station; while it may increase the cost for such an operation, the interference potential for not requiring type acceptance is too dangerous to consider. I also strongly believe that the size of the potential marketplace for low power radio equipment will lead to vigorous and healthy competition between manufacturers of such gear, and this will help keep prices in line with affordable standards. If the Commission is truly serious about licensing low power radio stations, then type-acceptance should be its first requirement; not only for regulatory reasons but also for the general overall health of the radio spectrum.
G. Proof of Engineering Expertise
Low power stations should be required to present the Commission, upon filing of its application, evidence of either satisfactory knowledge by the applicant of radio theory and engineering practices necessary with the construction and maintenance of the class of station the applicant desires to operate; proof of employment of an engineer; or a contract with a broadcast engineer to construct and maintain the station. If a contract engineer is used, a regular schedule of visits should be kept on file, and the intervals between visits should be monthly at the most. Transmitter logs should be kept regularly by all low power radio stations, including LP10s, should be available for inspection if requested, and must be kept at the station’s studio facility. If stations do not have a broadcast engineer on-staff, they must file quarterly summaries with the Commission on their transmission facility’s operation, which should include some sort of equipment inspection checklist and signal strength measurements. Stations with broadcast engineering knowledge available on-site on a regular basis should also be required to file such summaries semi-annually. Copies of all engineering data should be kept in the station’s public file indefinitely, including any interference complaints and the steps taken to resolve them.
EAS compliance should be mandatory for all LP1000 and LP100 stations, if they are licensed in the manner described in parts C and D. If LP100 stations are classified as a secondary service only, then they should be exempt from EAS compliance. There is no better time to serve the public interest than in a time of emergency, and EAS should only be regarded as the bare minimum amount of information dissemination necessary in such a situation (it would behoove full-power stations to comprehend this, too).
Being given the privilege to use such a valuable public resource as the broadcast spectrum should not be taken lightly, and the efficient and effective use of it should be paramount among the Commission’s concerns – requiring such engineering expertise out of a low power station will go a long way to quelling the fears many traditional broadcasters have about LPFM’s impact on their own signals. While such requirements may seem stringent, they represent the best possible way for the Commission to balance the increase in stations on the spectrum with the burden it will put on its field inspectors, and should also quickly separate the serious broadcaster from the casual one – helping to shunt people and organizations into the class of low power station most applicable to their own desires and goals.
V. REGULATORY CONSIDERATIONS
A. Station Ownership Requirements
If any low power radio station is to be effective as an outlet for community service, the ownership requirements for station owners must be strict enough that they must be forced into keeping touch with the community which they are attempting to serve. To allow LPFM station clusters, or multiple station ownership over large geographic areas, is to replicate the full-power radio industry’s current situation – only on a smaller wattage scale.
One person should be allowed to own only one station. That individual alone must hold the broadcast license; their names and relevant information must ‘fill in the blanks.’ The use of an entity, like a corporation, foundation or other proxy, should not be allowed, although such entities may be used in conjunction with non-regulatory station operations. Making a sole individual responsible for the license will accomplish two goals: First, it will motivate those wanting to establish and maintain a low power radio station make sure its operation (and those who work or volunteer for it) into vigorous compliance with FCC regulations; and, in the case where this compliance is lax, it will give the community slighted by the station’s function a visible, easy-to-find target for its criticism. Such a requirement should drastically increase the rates of overall LPFM regulatory compliance, decrease the amount of potential field inspection necessary for the service, and raise the overall standard of service such stations can provide their community of license.
The station owner must live within the protected contour of the station he or she owns; there is no better way to serve a community than to be a part of it. If a transfer of license becomes necessary, the new owner must continue to follow all of the rules the original and previous owner(s) have had to abide by, including updating the station’s original application data as required by Part IV, section G. There should also be no income caps or ‘affirmative action’ restrictions on the ownership of an LPFM station; if the owners themselves are held personally responsible for the operation of the station, they’ll be forced into performing the best service to the community they serve – at the scale of coverage being discussed, the community itself will see to that.
People who own outright, or have any kind of ownership interest in, current full power broadcast properties (including translators) or companies should not be allowed to own any LPFM license. There have been some AM station owners who have hinted at support for the LPFM plan if they are allowed a license to create a mechanism with which to supplement their nighttime coverage patterns; the goal of a low power radio service is not to supplement the status quo.
Along inverse lines, people who have operated or currently operate unlicensed radio stations up until the time as a legal low power radio service above current Part 15 limitations is established should not be excluded from applying for an LPFM license, nor should their previous activities be held against them in the application process – unless their unlicensed operation was of low technical quality and demonstrated interference problems outside of the parameters established for this new legal low power radio service. The reasoning behind this is clear – many of the newer LPFM stations currently in operation or planned for the near future are not the ‘pirates’ of old; they are people demonstrating just how viable and valuable a legal low power radio service can be – and how the illegal one already is. Seizure of unlicensed station broadcast equipment may have increased over the past few years, but so have the number of people who have either shut down their stations or cut their power levels back to Part-15 specifications upon receipt of a warning notice. If it weren’t for this mass showing of electronic civil disobedience (and the work it’s created for the Compliance and Information Bureau), this issue wouldn’t have the high profile it enjoys before the Commission right now.
Those who have helped to make such a significant social change in our country’s communication policy should not be excluded from partaking in the fruits of their own labor – to do so would be unethical and will only contribute to the ‘pirate problem’ the FCC is currently wrestling with. However, they should not be ‘grandfathered’ into legality or given special favor in the application process – they helped change this country’s broadcast policy, and, as stated before, that change (and the chance to participate in what comes out of it) is a fair enough reward for their actions.
B. Local Programming Requirements
These, too, are mandatory for any low power radio service proposed, as a measure of deterrence from the devastation of public service already seen in the current radio industry. It is precisely the use of station automation and syndicated programming which led to the problems that sparked this entire discussion. However, it is sometimes necessary for unattended operation to occur – back in the ‘good old days,’ before the Commission drastically liberalized its unattended operation rules, violations occurred regularly, and many times without anyone being the wiser. Unattended operation in and of itself as a concept is not a bad thing; it is the abuse of unattended operation that causes the problem.
Therefore, I suggest its not unreasonable that 75% of an LPFM station’s programming be locally-produced, originally-aired, live material. For this purpose,’live’ is defined as any programming which does not rely on station automation or syndication to air – simply put, a ‘body’ must be in the studio ‘working the board’ three-fourths of the time. In terms of the number of hours in a day, this will allow a 24-hour a day LPFM operation the ability to operate unattended for six hours, in which case it might replay tapes of programming from the previous broadcast day, an automated ‘playlist,’ or syndicated material. This will force community involvement in an LPFM station at the most basic level – it will take multiple people to make the station run. At the same time, it will give the station owner enough flexibility to meet the necessary staffing requirements inherent in such a rule.
Turning our attention to broadcast schedules for specific station classes: LP1000 stations must broadcast 24 hours a day, every day. LP100 stations should be required to broadcast at least 20 hours a day. LP10 stations should not be required to maintain a minimum time on air, but must maintain a regular broadcast schedule. Such requirements put a staffing burden on stations in proportion to the value of the resource which they are being given license to use.
Programming logs must be kept by all low power stations, and should detail any programming that airs in regards to time, duration, context, and the people involved. For music-intensive programming, this must include playlists, and the times at which specific material aired. Programming logs must be kept in the public file for a minimum of of three licensing cycles (as defined in Part V, Section E). This will allow the general public better oversight of low power radio – if someone who files a complaint can easily prove it, the Commission’s course of action in the case should be a straightforward and efficient one. Likewise, such easily accessible and detailed information will make a station owner that much more accountable to the operation of the station, and should reduce the fears of unjust or misguided complaints or license challenges.
C. Commercial/Non-Commercial Requirements
Much of the time spent debating MM 99-25 in advocacy circles is the desire for and viability of commercial LPFM stations. Unfortunately, while advocates of a completely non-commercial low power radio service have valid ideological-level arguments about the negatives of capitalism, I am afraid those arguments might potentially be destructive at the real-world level.
Granted, capitalism conceived of and fostered the massive homogeny the current radio industry has become. But the problem is not with capitalism itself; it is with consolidation and mass marketing – the tools capitalism used (in this case) to further its own growth. If we subscribe to the ownership and local programming requirements laid out in sections A and B of this Part, such homogeny isn’t possible.
The idea of a radio station serving in the public interest should not just stop at the potential of its medium – profitable, locally-owned businesses have been shown time and again to provide the best overall benefits to the community they’re associated with and are the best indicators of strength and vibrancy in any community; allowing LPFM stations the option of being commercial operations opens up its potential to provide a public service at more than just one level.
That being said, there should be restrictions on how commercialism may be used on low power radio stations – if such a station is taking up valuable spectrum space to provide a public service, its existence should be tied closely with the public being served. Therefore, advertising on low power radio stations should only be allowed from locally-owned businesses in the station’s community of license or coverage area, whichever is largest. Doing so should provide a commercial LPFM station with a base of potential advertisers large enough to generate a sufficient income of operation and profit from; keep the station’s advertising rates within affordable levels to attract such businesses; and provide those businesses with a viable media outlet with which to compete with national or regional franchises and chains. Having such a requirement may also accomplish a worthy secondary objective; it may force such ‘mega-businesses’ to rethink their models and re-prioritize their role and value to the communities in which they locate.
There should be no restrictions on the amount of commercial inventory a station should carry; the access the public will have at all levels of station operation and regulation and its tolerance of such an inventory will dictate its size. Whether or not a station plans to be commercial should also not play a deciding role in license renewals or circumstances where there may be competing applications following other economic models. Remember, it is not the mere presence of such commercials in a station’s programming that present a threat to its ability to operate in the public interest, but, again, in how the tool is used. Its abuse, if it occurs, should become readily apparent and a course of remediation should be decided during the license renewal/competing application processes (as outlined in sections D and E).
Non-commercial LPFM is strongly encouraged; being completely free of the strings to make a profit does contain some benefits. There are drawbacks, too – depending on how the non-commercial station decides to raise the revenue it needs to operate, and where that revenue stream comes from. Regardless of how it generates the revenue necessary to remain on the air, every applicant for an LPFM station will be required to provide information showing the applicant has the fiscal wherewithal, foresight and responsibility necessary to take on such a task.
The FCC’s current spectrum allocation for specific non-commercial use (88-92 MHz) should be maintained, but non-commercial LPFM stations should be allowed on any available channel in the entire FM broadcast band – not only will this give non-commercial stations the best opportunity to find an available channel, but it won’t allow an expansion of commercial radio operations outside of the channels they’re currently allowed on.
Comparisons of commercial LPFM and commercial full-power radio stations should not sway the Commission’s decision when determining this issue; because of the differences in how the two services will be structured and the differences in their ongoing regulation, such similarities simply won’t exist. Please do not kill the potential economic feasibility and health of this service to attempt to correct the mistakes made in regulating another.
D. Competing Applications
In the event of competing station applications for an equal license class, certain criteria should be considered as to issue the license to the applicant who demonstrates the best potential for serving their community of license. One of these criteria should be financial stability – the applicant who shows the most potential for creating and maintaining a low power radio station for the longest period of time should be considered more seriously than one who demonstrates the fiscal wherewithal but has no long-term plan. Profit/loss statements should not be the issue here – what the Commission should look for is the applicant who can demonstrate not only the resources to establish a station, but also the foresight to continue a high level of public service long after its initial broadcast. This may, in some instances, rate non-commercial applicants higher than an entrepreneur, depending on the degree of financial risk involved.
In situations of competing applications, the Commission should also favor the applicant who demonstrates the highest level of community support. Effective examples of this would be resolutions passed by governmental bodies and established organizations in the community of proposed license. Programming formats should not be a factor in determining which competing applicant gets the license – the only programming-related factors which should be considered in situations of competing applications should be the proposed broadcast schedule (hours of service) and the percentage of local programming (the higher above the minimum outlined in section B, the better). Again, details like a format’s success should and will ultimately be determined by the community which the station serves. Overall, the Commission should look not at what a station plans to do with their signal, but at the station plan that has the best chance of operating in the public interest for the longest amount of time.
E. License Renewals
License renewals on the current seven-year ‘rolling’ schedule are more bureaucratic formality than a true opportunity for the public to provide any oversight and significant input into whether or not a radio station is currently serving its interest. Because of the great length of time between opportunities to officially ‘challenge’ a station’s existence, many people neglect to simply forget about notify the FCC about their objections to it – and just because that station ‘got away with it’ doesn’t make it right.
Much of this problem will be offset by the coverage area of LPFM stations; the public they serve will have much more access to them, and their ability to even get on the air should be determined by and large (especially for LP1000 and LP100 applicants) by the amount of public support they can muster for their application. Most of the rest of it should be taken care of by implementing a shortened interval between license renewals. However, because the widely varied nature of each different LPFM station class due to its coverage area, and the fluidity of license holders possible for each class, each one should have a different interval between renewals.
For an LP1000 station, license renewals should occur every four years. This is almost half the time of the lowest-strength full-power station class currently available, and represents a long enough length of time for a new license holder to make the necessary development of their station from a broadcast ‘newcomer’ into a seasoned professional. It also decreases the time potential license challengers have to bring their case to the Commission, and, in the worst-case scenario, is a long-enough time for an ill-prepared licensee to either ‘use it or lose it,’ and another better-prepared one to be ready to take its place.
For an LP100 station, license renewals should take place every two years. Again, the renewal cycle allows enough time under the burdens for such a station’s initial operating needs to fair and adequate record of public service. Because it is the one with the most potential to serve the greatest amount of people, it should also be responsive enough to their input.
For LP10 stations, license renewals should come yearly. Due to the ‘hobby’ nature of their operations, and the resultant fluidity of potential new applicants, their renewals should be relatively quick and painless. Most of all, the ‘attention span’ of the casual listener who may get worked up enough to file a complaint (maybe measured in months, but not years) will still be engaged enough in the item of concern to be motived to contact the Commission with their input and perspective at license renewal time.
A summary of the necessary technical information in their public files (as described in Part IV, Section G) shall be sent to the FCC with the renewal application for appropriate evaluation. All programming logs should also be forwarded as part of the renewal process, although it may behoove the Commission to select random weekly samples for examination purposes, as long as it is the Commission who does the selection. Again, a level of involvement from governmental bodies and established organizations in the communities of license or coverage is encouraged; positive, continual resolutions of support from enough of these might possibly be the best general indicator of the overall health and stability of the station in question.
F. Uses of Lotteries/Auctions
While apparently required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, this is an incredibly bad method for granting the privilege of using such a valued public resource. It is auctions, combined with the massive consolidation of the broadcast industry (and the resultant increase in revenue, and the resultant inflation in the price of broadcast properties for their channel space), that precipitated the proposal currently before the Commission. It behooves this agency to take the necessary steps to either have the auctions requirement of the Telecom Act completely repealed or, at the least, modified so as not to require their use in any low power radio service which is established. Using auctions will decimate the pool of potential station applicants and therefore severely undermine the quality and effective use of the service the Commission desires to provide.
Lotteries are acceptable, in the case where the Commission can absolutely not come to a decision on competing applications. Lotteries should only be considered a ‘last ditch effort’ at granting a station license; all other procedures and policies that might possibly bring a conclusion or compromise between competing applications should be thoroughly exhausted before a lottery is used to decide the issue. Lotteries should be free for entry (no ‘entrance fee’) and must generate enough random results to guarantee a single, clear winner between a maximum potential number of applicants for any given channel (whose baseline could be determined by the Commission by initial response to the offering of such a service). With the level of public access to the licensing process, however, the expectation of actually needing to use lotteries to decide the issue of competing applications should be slim at best.
G. Application Paperwork and Fees
Because of the relatively small power and coverage area of LPFM stations as opposed to full-power ones, their bureaucratic and financial regulatory-based burdens should be smaller in similar proportion. License application forms should include technical proof of viability for the class of station they propose to license, as outlined in Part IV of these Comments. Particular attention, when formulating the amount of engineering data required to complete an application, should be paid to Sections B and G of this Part. A required Attachment to the application should be some sort of proof of financial stability and a demonstration of the ability to operate the station through its full licensed term. Applications should be simple and straightforward in their wording and requirements, and the use of electronic submission and processing is strongly encouraged.
License application and renewal fees should also be reasonable in regards to the amount of spectrum resource consumed. A simple, yet fair, formula may be the ‘dollar per watt, dollar per meter’ example – One dollar per watt (measured in ERP) plus one dollar per meter of HAAT. That would set the maximum allowable cost for a license application at $1,060 for an LP1000, $160 for an LP100, and $40 for an LP10. This provides an adequate amount of revenue generation for the Commission to handle its expected regulatory responsibilities while not creating an undue financial burden on potential applicants, who will then be able to invest the majority of their funds in the best possible equipment and programming. However, the same fee formula should also apply for license renewals – a fiscally healthy station after a single license cycle (as determined by station class) should have no problem affording the same charge in exchange for the privilege it’s been given and the potential to be had from it. If the Commission can develop a regulatory process streamlined enough to fit the needs of such a low power service, then these fees should provide a revenue neutral situation at best.
Much has also been made by those initially opposed to even the discussion of a low power radio service about the potential burden it might create on the FCC’s Compliance and Information Bureau. To the contrary – judging from public comments made by CIB chief Richard Lee on the largest World Wide Web discussion forum dealing with this issue (under the handle of ‘TopCop, I might add), not only is such a service technically possible, but also well within his ability and means to regulate:
“I told the NAB that I supported the LPFM proposal and that it has been my experience that only 25% of the 450+ stations shut down since August 1997 were real pirates because the others shut down voluntarily after a warning. Many of those who shut down voluntarily were community groups, schools, small businesses, churches, and individuals who wanted to serve their community. I also told them that if their engineers couldn’t find a way to help introduce a LPFM service without negatively impacting the FM band and current licensees, then they should find new engineers.”
Who better to believe than the head of your own Bureau who will be most impacted by such a service? Need I say more? Need anybody? If anything, Richard Lee deserves more help ‘in the field’ anyway – his field inspectors, at current staffing levels and priorities, do not provide enough of a deterrence to make even the current full-power licensed broadcast community to strictly adhere to all regulations.
A. The ‘Pirate Problem’
There is only one true assumption made about a proposed low power radio service by the NAB and the majority of its members; that a legal, licensed LPFM service will not end the problem of unlicensed broadcasting. Like it or not, the urge and will to resist and subvert authority is a human trait with a history as long as that of civilization itself. The ‘pirate problem’ is also not the issue designed to be addressed here – and it is not as clear-cut of an issue as the NAB would lead us to believe.
The rest of the NAB’s assumption of intent is bogus. The type of people Mr. Lee describes above operate unlicensed stations for vastly different reasons the ‘traditional pirate’ does. Such an attempt at generalization, frankly, insults the intelligence of both the Commission and everyone remotely knowledgeable with the LPFM issue.
There will always be those who don’t want a license, and they will be continue to be dealt with in a way the Commission sees fit. But its Compliance and Information agents will not have to respond to every low power station in the way it is now – effectively negating the opposition’s point on the matter by reducing the current overall burden to levels not seen in years.
B. Radio Industry Impact
I am constantly amazed at the lack of feedback MM 99-25 has gotten from the ‘talent’-level of the current radio industry; I’m inclined to believe it’s because our ranks have been drastically thinned to the point where there’s just not enough of us left in ‘the business’ with the confidence in their employment stability to sound off on such a controversial issue.
The past two years of evolution in the radio industry has seen a mass forced exodus of on-air radio professionals at the sub-management level. These are the people that gave a station its sense of localism. They’re not being replaced, either – I have yet to find an intern at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s large and renowned School of Journalism who looks at radio as a career option. The cash cow will milk itself dry; the strong public backlash against the state of the radio industry and the strong support the Commission is seeing for this proposal more than demonstrate this.
I believe a low power radio service will not only create much-needed ownership and employment opportunities in the broadcast industry, but it will revitalize a sense of vocation potential broadcasters used to feel. If we can ‘fix’ the medium so that people again are participating in it, the general public’s participation (and the subsequent effectiveness of the medium) will greatly increase. It has the potential to, in effect, bring a Renaissance to such an important yet greatly neglected and abused means of mass communication.
Dire predictions of economic disaster are unfounded – and it should be already abundantly clear on both sides that a low power radio service will not spell economic disaster for an industry that has managed to flourish in the face of several new communication technologies – each and every time. Full-power and low power stations will not be competing for the same slice of revenue, either – how each service is and will be defined will effectively see to that.
C. Appreciation and Warning
Lastly, I would like to express an incredible amount of thanks to the Commission for being bold enough to consider such a politically controversial issue. I can only hope that it takes this matter as seriously as I have written these comments.
However, I strongly urge the Commission to realize that this Proposal does not represent an optional change in broadcast policy; thanks to the legislation and administrative rule changes in radio over the recent years, the quality and level of service in the public interest this medium now provides have forced it to be dealt with. If anything, the radio industry as it currently stands is in dire need of serious regulatory overhaul – if the Commission elects not to undertake such a task, then MM 99-25 is the next most effective way to make the changes necessary to restore the medium as a whole with some semblance of public value. But if the Commission makes no changes at all, the overall state of radio itself will still need improvement. Civil disobedience is already being heavily utilized to force change, and this issue has not even reached the level of regional or even national public consciousness. When it does, and the status quo remains, I wish you the best of luck in your attempts to deal with the crisis management you will have to undertake.
You are to be commended for your service to-date; further efforts are not only laudable but strongly supported. The potential you’re creating could revolutionize the not just the face but impact of radio as a method of mass communication in America; please proceed along this path with utmost caution, care and consideration.
John Nathan Anderson
Dated: July 26, 1999