What is LPFM?
LPFM stands for Low Power FM radio broadcasting. In the United States, the lowest minimum wattage a licensed FM radio station may have is 100 watts. There are lower-power FM transmitters in use, though, by some stations who want to increase their coverage area by extending their signal. These are called translators or boosters.
While these may only have a wattage measured in a range from dozens to hundreds, they are not true broadcast stations by the FCC’s definitions – they do not originate their own programming. They rely on a “parent” station to provide what they air.
Ham (amateur) radio uses a similar system called a repeater; people don’t broadcast from it. They shoot a signal into it, and then it gets re-broadcast to an area larger than what ham operators might reach with their own gear. In a nutshell, translators and boosters are the repeaters of FM radio.
LPFM is the common term used to define an FM broadcast station that originates its own programming but has the power of a translator or booster. Under current FCC rules, operating such a station is simply not allowed. You may also see LPFM referred to by other terms – like “LPRS,” “microradio,” and “mini-FM,” but they all mean the same thing.
LPFM Was Legal Once – The Class D Station Era
While the FCC in 2000 began issuing licenses for LPFM stations, the idea is not exactly new.
LPFM had existed for more than three decades in the United States, in the form of a “Class D” station license, first given out by the FCC in 1948. Class D stations were originally licensed at 10 watts on the FM band, within the region of 88 to 92 MHz (known as the “educational band” of FM radio).
There’s a specific reason for this: Class D stations were the FCC’s first attempt to bring more schools and colleges onto the air – a way to give potential broadcasters an outlet for hands-on training while not breaking an institution’s bank operating it (in radio, the more power you want, the more expensive it gets).
Eventually, Class D FM stations were allowed power levels between 1 and 100 watts. They were strictly non-commercial, and were only licensed to educational institutions. Major demand for Class D stations didn’t happen – this is due in part to two specific reasons.
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed this Act into law, and in doing so, made federal funding available for non-commercial educational radio stations. It fundamentally changed the idea of what non-commercial educational stations should be.
The first goal of the Act was to establish a national “public radio” network. Three years later, National Public Radio was born, providing programming far above the level Class D stations were equipped to deliver on their own.
This was a very significant development, as it defined what’s considered contemporary “public radio” today. The powers-that-be felt that “public radio” should provide a nationally-accessible educational service – kind of as a “school on the airwaves.” Therefore, its outlet would be on educational stations.
Although many Class D stations were licensed to educational institutions, because of their small signal range they were often used as on-air radio laboratories – places where budding broadcasters and other students could experiment with radio (and make mistakes). As a result, the quality of the programming didn’t measure up to the standards of National Public Radio.
An on-air broadcast lab isn’t always educational for a listener – but screwing up live is a great way for future broadcasters to learn their lessons. Class D stations were, in many ways, the perfect stepping stone to go from classroom to career. However, such a situation was incompatible with NPR’s mission.
Educational Radio’s Identity Crisis
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 threw the definition of “educational broadcasting” into disarray: were Class D stations intended to be places where students of radio could learn, or were they supposed to provide an education to the listening audience? The two goals were worthy but often couldn’t be accomplished together.
Some thought NPR-style educational programming provided the best public service a station could give: enlightening listeners with material commercial radio simply wouldn’t program. Others thought an on-air laboratory was better, because of the opportunity it gave radio professionals of the future to hone their skills: that would make for a ready “talent pool” for the radio industry.
Some Class D stations became ardent subscribers to the national public radio theory and “professionalized” their operations. They hired full-time staff to manage and program them. The students were effectively cut out of the equation. Many of these operations also upped their wattage, shedding their Class D license status in the process.
The vast remainder of Class D stations remained student-run, programming what those students in the studio wanted to hear. On-air mistakes were common, and while professionalism was often absent, it didn’t mean the programming suffered: the on-air liberty afforded to students in such operations often made for innovative broadcasts.
It is the spirit of the Class D radio laboratory-type station which fueled the renaissance of college radio in the late 1980s and early 1990s – when “alternative” music began its rise in popularity and forced change in the recording industry. Non-NPR non-commercial educational stations were the ones breaking new acts – and as soon as record labels recognized that fact, they jumped in head-first. It was the handful of Class D stations still on the air that often led the way.
By this time, though, LPFM in America had all but been outlawed.
Class D Licenses Disappear
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting completely abandoned the “radio laboratory” idea in 1972. That year, CPB filed a petition with the FCC to effectively standardize educational radio in the United States along the national public radio model.
In its petition, the CPB challenged the legality of those student-run stations that still existed – claiming they didn’t effectively serve the public interest because their programming was so variable in quality and quantity. Student-run stations often shut down during school breaks and vacations, and often ran limited operating hours when school was in session.
The CPB saw this as a waste of radio space, as these small part-time stations were taking up parts of the spectrum where higher-power “public radio” might otherwise be available.
The FCC apparently agreed, and decided to phase out the Class D license in 1978. Those Class Ds that did not upgrade their power above 100 watts were kicked out of the 88-92 MHz part of the FM band. Class D operations that couldn’t find space in the commercial segment of the spectrum (93-108 MHz) were forced off the air.
Not all Class Ds were killed off, though – some still exist to this day (including my old college radio station, still on the air with 36 watts just outside the Chicago metro area).
The Rise of Translators
By 1980, while many Class D educational stations had upgraded their licenses and power to the new minimum requirements, there were still a lot of holes left in the non-commercial educational FM band that could be served by lower-wattage stations.
Although translator stations have been around since 1970, it was not until the end of Class D station era that their use exploded.
The opportunity was seized by religious broadcasters, who took advantage of the new openings on the spectrum by applying for and receiving approval to place translator stations throughout the country.
Here’s how it worked: a religious organization would apply for an open channel in an area where there was enough room on the dial for a translator.
Translators are easy to set up and maintain. Once a translator license was approved, the cost of to establish and operate it was picked up by wealthy individuals in the communities the translator served; religious broadcasters had struck upon an effective low-cost method for spreading their “Word.”
The FCC welcomed the applications, as nobody could run a “real” radio station anymore at such low power, and it’s a shame to see useable spectrum lie fallow.
There are thousands of these automated re-broadcasters on the air now; the most notable exploiters of translators are the American Family Association, Family Radio and the Moody Bible Institute, who have literally hundreds each in operation nationwide.
The explosion in translators has effectively crowded out the possibility for LPFM stations in areas that could otherwise be served, but since LPFM had been outlawed, no real problem existed.
By the mid-1990s, as the powers-that-be made their next move to regulate radio, the potential benefits of LPFM stations again took center stage.
Microradio Steals the Show
Mbanna Kantako was not looking to found a movement when he began WTRA, a one-watt FM station out of his apartment in a housing project in Springfield, Illinois in 1987. He and his comrades turned to the airwaves as a means to spread the word about the rampant police brutality taking place in their neighborhood.
Legally blind and lacking money, it seemed that Kantako was asking for trouble. While the Springfield police did try to get him taken off the air, Kantako’s unusual situation – and the fact that he was airing complete, unedited stories of the brutality (sometimes as they happened, live) put the FCC in an unsual position.
Busting Mbanna Kantako was not only politically stupid, but the man had made a point. The people were heard; police loosened their grip on the collective neck of Springfield’s African community.
Kantako’s been fined but refuses to pay. He remains on the air today as Human Rights Radio, and has expanded his outreach to his community’s youth, setting up numerous after-school programs to instill a sense of identity and pride in a community shunned by the rest of Springfield.
The biggest explosion of LPFM activity was still a few years off when Stephen Dunifer made national headlines in his battle with the FCC.
In 1993, moved by Kantako’s drive and message, Dunifer founded Free Radio Berkeley, a 40-watt FM station on a shoestring budget from an apartment. In a way, Dunifer, resurrected the Class D station concept.
He wasn’t out to specifically do that – after 11 years of intense pro-business deregulation by the Reagan and Bush administrations, and incensed by the corporate media’s cheerleading for Gulf War I, Dunifer had simply had enough. As an experienced electronics technician, Stephen designed his own transmitter and began mass-producing kits that spread across the nation.
Access to cheap transmitter kits – and the spread of Free Radio Berkeley’s ideas via the fledgling ‘net – helped fuel the first insurgence of unlicensed LPFM broadcasters.
It didn’t take long before Dunifer’s public displays of unlicensed broadcasting brought the FCC into the picture. Stephen stepped up the pressure, challenging the agency’s rules in court.
Dunifer believed, in short, that if the airwaves were truly for the people, than as a member of “the people,” he had a First Amendment right to broadcast. Free Radio Berkeley also helped prove that microradio stations didn’t harm megawatt station signals, so long as their transmitters were well-tuned and maintained responsibly. At the least, Dunifer’s briefs argued, the FCC should bring back something akin to the Class D license.
Free Radio Berkeley is now off the air after losing the last round in court, but it did win some of the legal skirmishes on its trip through the justice system. These temporary victories helped to give the fledgling microradio movement a little room to breathe and grow.
As the ’90s wore on, Stephen Dunifer’s argument began hitting closer to home as an even larger scheme radio regulatory “reform” was unleashed.
The Telecom Act of 1996
In 1996, Congress completely revamped the Telecommunications Act – the federal laws that govern every method of communication in America. It was a job that hadn’t been comprehensively done since 1934, and the emergence of new communications technologies (primarily the Internet) spurred the government into the activity of updating these rules and regulations.
However, the Telecom Act of ’96 was also hog heaven for special interests – especially broadcasters.
Much of the prime-time spotlight focused on the largest piece of pork: a multi-billion dollar allocation of broadcast spectrum – for free – to licensed TV stations for the upcoming digital television (DTV) service.
In the event of two competing applicants for one open broadcasting frequency in a market, the FCC usually gives the license to the highest bidder. By giving existing license holders all the existing DTV space, it effectively guaranteed the status quo on the media landscape (with crisper pictures and sound). At the time, it was a mind-boggling piece of corporate welfare.
It hardly made the news.
The radio industry made off with a nice slice of pork of its own – the previous Telecom Act only allowed one company to own a maximum of two radio stations per market, and a maximum of 20 stations nationally. In the 1996 Act, that maximum cap was raised to eight stations per market, and the national cap was abolished.
A wave of consolidation ensued, the likes of which no communications industry has seen before or since. Companies devoured one another, growing and growing until 1999 – where one company legally owned more than 700 radio stations nationwide. In 2004, the largest radio conglomerate, Clear Channel Communications, owned more than 1,200 stations.
Consolidation has proved quite lucrative for radio broadcasters. With more stations to sell under one roof, they close larger advertising contracts for package deals across stations and markets. And since there’s less competition, ad rates have gone up.
In order to maximize profits, radio conglomerates have “streamlined” operations. This meant the firing of all “duplicate” employees. The first positions on the chopping block were the talent – the people on the air in every station, in every community, who gave each individual station its personality.
The local talent was replaced by cheaper alternatives, namely computer automation and syndicated programming. News departments were the most decimated because they cost so much for such a little slice of programming time.
On a music station, it is now possible for a “DJ” to go into a studio, speak words into a computer, and have the computer place the “voice tracks” in between songs where appropriate – to give the appearance of being live on the air.
Complaints began to crop up among the listening public that radio was beginning to sound the same, and they were right. It’s because the hometown radio station no longer existed in most markets. In fact, it is now possible to listen to stations in communities separated thousands of miles apart and not be able to tell much difference between them.
Because of this, radio stations lost their most important attribute – their connection to the communities they served. One of the things that made radio such an effective tool of mass communication was its localism. While de-humanizing has left the radio industry full of cash, it’s an empty shell of what it once was.
Telecom Backlash and the Second Rise of LPFM
Following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, as more and more stations began to be controlled by less and less people, some disenfranchised listeners took it upon themselves to make change. Borrowing Dunifer’s argument about public access to the airwaves as justification, these people set up their own stations and began broadcasting without licenses.
Some of these people were electronics hobbyists; others were activists; quite a few were in the radio industry themselves. Station operators ranged from contrarians in Pennsylvania to club promoters in Ohio to patriots in Washington State.
It doesn’t take much money to put a micropower station on the air, and because the power levels often used were under 100 watts (a la the old Class D license), there was room on the dial to be found for them.
As the movement grew various electronics manufacturers jumped into the market with their own kit designs, while others began offering pre-assembled and tested transmitters. This brought the price down even further, while raising the quality of the equipment – and, ultimately, the broadcasts.
More and more people began to find their radio voices: by 1998 hundreds of microradio stations had taken to the air. By the FCC’s count, it closed down more than 250 of them that year, although documentation to back up this claim is nearly impossible to find.
FCC Smackdown Backfires
However, what was known about FCC busts were enough to spur others to action. For example, patriot broadcaster Arthur Lonnie Kobres and radio electronics businessman Doug Brewer set up microradio stations in Lutz and Tampa, Florida, respectively. They both ran their operations in full view, publicizing their activities and encouraging people to listen in, while ignoring repeated FCC warnings and visits.
Because of their brazenness, both were raided on November 19, 1997 – and in brutal fashion. Doug Brewer and his wife were handcuffed on the floor of their home while government agents, armed with automatic weapons, destroyed his radio station and parts of his home. Kobres was eventually arrested for running his radio station, and was convicted of a felony, becoming the first American ever to receive and serve a criminal sentence for broadcasting.
The perception of big government cracking down on individuals helped fan the flames of the microradio movement and spurred even more stations to take to the air.
Throughout the mid-1990s, the FCC was hit with a series of budget cutbacks that forced the agency to consolidate its enforcement offices into regional locations. This helped foster the growth of microradio, as the number of stations on the air overwhelmed the manpower available to police the airwaves.
What happened was a simple act of civil disobedience. In a quintessential American way, microradio stations allowed a non-violent method for people to air their grievances with the state of radio. It was a good time for four people from widely differing backgrounds to petition the FCC to bring low-power stations back to life – legally.
FCC Accepts LPFM Petitions
Nickolaus and Judith Leggett weren’t notables in the radio industry until they formally petitioned the FCC to re-establish low power radio licenses. Just two radio enthusiasts in Virginia – but the couple recognized the glaring lack of localism in radio and struck on an idea to fix the problem.
With the help of former Capitol Hill lobbyist and Connecticut attorney Don Schellhardt (who has no background in radio but was similarly concerned about the state of the media), the three filed a petition with the FCC to consider their idea. It called for low-power AM and FM stations, ranging from one to 100 watts, and an ownership restriction of five stations maximum.
The goal, according to the Leggetts and Schellhardt, was to foster “the ties of community identity…in urban neighborhoods, rural towns, and other communities which are currently too small to win much attention from mainstream, ratings-driven media.”
It would be a perfect outlet to “experiment with new ideas” and expand community dialogue, “without running the financial risk that a larger station might incur.”
This proposal struck a chord with a Federal Communications Commission populated with appointments made by President Clinton. The most influential of these was Chairman William Kennard, the FCC’s former top Legal Counsel – and, ironically, the man who oversaw the case of Stephen Dunifer and Free Radio Berkeley.
The Leggetts and Schellhardt envisioned microstations as being catalysts to bring people together while increasing public access to and diversity on the dial.
Kennard saw the benefits of such an idea, and the Commission voted to proceed with the proposal. It was assigned the official title RM-9208 on February 5, 1998.
Meanwhile, Rodger Skinner, a broadcast engineer with more than 30 years of experience in the industry and the owner of a low power television station, was also pondering the viability of low power radio.
Skinner had extensive experience dealing with the FCC. He wrote the original proposal that gave radio stations the right to place small transmitters in tunnels, helping them to avoid the signal loss that often happened when cars passed through.
He had also been attempting to get a license with the FCC for his own full-power radio station in various places in the Eastern and Midwestern U.S., but without success. Skinner’s own desires, in combination with his massive amount of technical expertise, led to him file his own low power radio petition.
Skinner’s petition, filed seven months after the first, proposed a new class of “radio entrepreneur” on the airwaves. He wanted FM stations ranging in power from 50 to 3,000 watts, with a national ownership cap of three stations.
Skinner, too, gave a nod to those who had helped force the FCC into a position to consider his plea. “There are many throughout America today willing to risk severe punishment just to be heard,” he wrote. “As an observer, I fear that to ignore this large number of citizens…and deny them a voice could have severe repercussions in the future.”
Because Skinner backed up his idea with credible engineering data to show it was feasible, the FCC decided to consider his proposal as well – assigning it the title RM-9242 on February 20, 1998.
High-Power Broadcasters React to Low Power Radio
The National Associaton of Broadcasters, the industry’s main muscle in Washington, D.C., paid attention to the massive uprising in “pirate radio” during the late 1990s. As early as 1997, the NAB declared war on unlicensed broadcasters, urging its members to scan their local radio dials and turn in any pirates they could find.
Simultaneously, with its massive lobbying resources and financial backing, the NAB began hitting the FCC hard with criticism. After all, it was one of the major masterminds behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996. If it could craft an entirely new law of the land, it should surely be able to crush a small revolt challenging its effects.
The chairman of one of the Congressional committees that oversees the FCC’s budget, Louisiana Representative Billy Tauzin, received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the NAB. He threatened to cut the FCC’s funding if it continued to consider re-legalizing low power radio.
The radio industry claimed that allowing such stations on the air would not only create massive interference to their operations, but threatened the economic stability of many stations.
Neither of these arguments made much sense – the “traditional” FM radio station operates with a power measured in the thousands of watts. Low power stations operate with wattages much smaller than that. If anything, the bigger station would interfere with the smaller one.
The buzz-phrase surrounding the NAB’s primary argument was
“spectrum efficiency” – ironically, the same phrase the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (who also officially opposed RM-9208 and 9242) used back in 1972 to convince the FCC to outlaw low power FM radio in the first place.
In the meantime, the commercial radio industry was thriving like never before. The consolidation and streamlining of operational costs took revenues to an all-time high. But listenership was in decline, and the number of unlicensed low power stations continued to grow.
There was a fundamental problem with the turn radio had taken: traditional broadcasters sensed the dissatisfaction in the public with the product it presented and were afraid they would be forced to change their ways away from maximizing profits and minimizing substance.
After hearing both sides of the argument on RM-9208 and 9242, and faced with the increasing flood of unlicensed stations taking to the airwaves, the FCC chose to begin the process of resurrecting a licensed low power radio service.
FCC Proposes Re-Legalization
The reasons for the FCC’s relegalization of LPFM were two-fold. Two parties had filed petitions asking the agency to do it, and there had been a massive explosion in the number of LPFM “pirates” since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
These two reasons go hand-in-hand and neither of them could have accomplished anything if they had occurred separately. RM-9208 and -9242 wouldn’t have made it out of the circular file if the FCC couldn’t see the public demand for the service. They had that evidence from the radio cops’ case load. And the “pirates” wouldn’t have gotten the Commission to listen to their demands if two sets of kindred spirits hadn’t formally engaged them in dialogue.
After placing the two proposals out for public comment, the FCC received hundreds of responses, overwhelmingly in favor of re-legalizing LPFM. In 1998 alone, the Commission fielded more than 20,000 inquiries from citizens who wanted to start their own stations. It was pressured to act, plain and simple.
On January 28, 1999, the FCC released MM 99-25, its own formal proposal to create a new LPFM service. The five-member commission was not unanimously in favor of advancing the idea, though: only two of the five, Chairman William Kennard and Commissioner Gloria Tristani, were wholeheartedly in support of it.
“We cannot deny opportunities to those who want to use the airwaves to speak to their communities simply because it might be inconvenient for those who already have these opportunities,” said the two in a joint statement the day the LPFM proposal was released.
Commissioners Susan Ness and Michael Powell were skeptical about the idea. While both approved of LPFM in concept, they worried about the technical challenges of both implementing and enforcing the service.
Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth, however, hated the idea. “Good — arguably better, even — alternatives for the dissemination of messages in America certainly exist,” he said. “And the administrative burdens on the Commission will likely be great. Accordingly, I do not think this proposal represents an efficient use of radio spectrum.”
A look into Furchtgott-Roth’s pre-FCC background partly explains his opposition; in the three years before being appointed to the Commission, Furchtgott-Roth was a high-level staffer for the U.S. House Committee on Commerce.
It’s the House committee most-lobbied by the NAB, as it handles the House’s oversight of the FCC. His public statement on the day of MM 99-25’s release unabashedly mirrors the things the NAB and other broadcast special interests had been saying during the debate over the initial two LPFM proposals.
Nuts and Bolts of 99-25
MM 99-25 essentially took the best qualities of the two petitions filed to re-create LPFM, modified them slightly, and asked for a lot more public input. If the service was legalized as written, it would have created three classes of stations. Power levels would be set at 10, 100 and 1000 watts respectively, allowing the most powerful to cover a service area more than 17 miles wide. The least powerful was projected to cover three to four miles with its signal.
It encouraged potential LPFM licensees to live within the communities their stations would serve, but didn’t put a maximum cap on the number of stations one person or corporation could own. It also asked for more comment on several issues, like whether LPFM programming should require local origination; whether or not the stations could sell commercials; and if electronic filing would help get more people to apply for licenses.
But MM 99-25’s most controversial suggestion involved relaxing the current FM interference standards. By loosening these up, more LPFM stations could be fit on the spectrum. Here’s a simple example of how the change would work:
Under current rules, FM stations must not only make sure not to cause interference with those stations that share its own frequency (or channel), but also with those three channels away on either side. This is called first, second and third-adjacency interference protection.
Under the FCC’s proposal, LPFM stations would’ve only had to worry about interfering with those stations on the neighboring (first adjacent) channels. It was an important proposed change in policy because it would allow LPFM stations on the air where second and third-adjacent channel restrictions would otherwise prohibit them.
This fueled the major bone of contention surrounding the LPFM debate – the potential for interference between stations. The NAB and its member stations claimed that relaxing the protection standards would lead to chaos on the FM band, making their stations unlistenable to many. But proponents of LPFM argued that because full-power stations operate at such higher wattages than LPFM stations, there’d be no real problems.
FM radio receivers are built in such a way that if two competing signals are received, the radio will automatically lock onto the stronger of the two. With full power FM stations operating at thousands of watts and LPFM stations operating at powers as low as 100 watts or less, it was tough to take the NAB’s major argument seriously.
Nonetheless, the broadcast industry spent a lot of money to produce a “technical study” claiming that most FM radios would have problems with new LPFM stations. However, at least two other studies were conducted that came to the opposite conclusion. One of them was done by the FCC itself, who said, “all the receivers in the sample, except for two, appear to meet or exceed the…second adjacent channel protection criterion and to exceed the…third adjacent channel protection criterion by a substantial margin.”
Congress Gets Involved
MM 99-25’s battleground was huge. The National Association of Broadcasters, most of its member stations, and other radio organizations, including National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, all opposed the proposal.
LPFM’s advocates included dozens of various public interest groups, religious organizations, and civil rights leaders, including the United States Catholic Conference, Consumers Union, AFL-CIO and the Navajo Nation. More than 2,000 individuals (including many professional broadcasters) also filed comments with the FCC in support of LPFM.
Taken together, MM 99-25 set a record for the amount of public input ever received on an FCC proposal. The public comment window closed on November 15, 1998.
But because the broadcast lobby is the richest and most powerful on Capitol Hill, the NAB called in its investments in Congress, already assuming a losing battle in front of the FCC.
Several members of the House of Representatives, who were paid well by the NAB, proposed a bill which would stop the FCC from continuing its work on LPFM, and prohibit the agency from ever considering the idea again.
The diversity of LPFM’s supporters, in a way, actually hurt them in the brewing fight on Capitol Hill. Because so many individuals and groups had so many different ideas on what to do with the potential service and how it should be structured, they could only agree on its necessity. They couldn’t fully unify around their own coherent lobbying effort because of their widely differing views on the details.
But killing LPFM through legislation would be difficult: not only did the broadcast industry need to convince the House to pass the bill but the Senate also had to approve, and the President had sign it into law.
Even if legal LPFM were to become reality it was clear that it wouldn’t stop unlicensed broadcasting. Many active “pirates” didn’t feel the LPFM’s service went far enough to open up the airwaves and stayed on the air, all but ignoring the growing hoopla in Washington.
FCC Legalizes LPFM
On January 20, 2000, the Federal Communications Commission voted in a split-decision to create a low power FM radio service. Stations would have power levels between 1 and 100 watts, be entirely non-commercial, and would take advantage of only slightly reduced interference restrictions.
However, it was not clear how LPFM would fit into the FCC’s pending action on digital audio broadcasting, or exactly how many usable frequencies would actually be opened in urban markets, the areas that needed the stations the most.
The first application window opened and closed in the beginning of June, 2000, netting more than 700 applications in the 10 states and two territories that were allowed to apply for the first licenses.
Ironically, after the rule was issued, religious organizations (including those who operated translator station networks) began applying like mad for open frequencies around the country. The most organized efforts to spread the word and knowledge about LPFM were led by the United Church of Christ and the Prometheus Radio Project. Local church groups also made up a sizeable segment of the first LPFM applicants.
Congress Moves to Kill
Following the FCC’s decision to re-legalize Low Power FM (LPFM) radio stations in January 2000, Big Broadcasting’s lobbyists went to work in Congress, kicking their effort to ban LPFM through rewriting law into high gear.
No tactic, it seemed, was out-of-bounds. The National Association of Broadcasters even went so far as to put together a compact disc filled with sample “sounds of interference” LPFM stations would cause and gave a copy to each member of Congress.
What the lawmakers didn’t know, or understand, was the sounds they were hearing were artificially manufactured and, therefore, designed to mislead. However, this CD was played nearly in its entirety in front of a House Subcommittee at an open hearing. That act skirted the bounds of legality, but it definitely crossed the ethical line.
Nonetheless, a massive effort to try and debunk the propaganda fell short: on April 13, by a more than two-to-one margin, the House of Representatives approved H.R. 3439, the “Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act.”
The Act would have cut the number of open frequencies possible for LPFM station placement by more than 80% while placing the entire program under the control of Congress, who retained the option to shut the entire LPFM program down by as early as February of 2001.
The masterstroke that led to the House’s passage of the anti-LPFM bill was an unlikely lobbying alliance between the NAB and National Public Radio, who also feared competition from the new LPFM stations. The joint effort hoodwinked liberal and conservative members of the House alike into voting for the bill.
The Senate Screwdriver
The anti-LPFM rhetoric didn’t play as well in the Senate, where the number of supporters of the “Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act” (S. 2068) was much slower to grow.
Part of the reason was due to the dubious moves of Arizona Senator John McCain. While he’d previously spoken out against the idea of LPFM, he took the Senate sponsors of the anti-LPFM bill to task for trying to stifle the diversity it would provide. Since McCain controlled the committee the bill would have to pass through before a vote, there was a good chance it wouldn’t get far.
Instead, McCain proposed his own LPFM legislation, called the “FM Radio Broadcasting Act.” His bill would have allowed the FCC to roll out low power radio on schedule, but it could have opened up license applicants to frivolous lawsuits from full-power station owners – draining fledgling stations of their funds could have killed them just as surely as if the House-approved bill became law.
Courts and Counterattacks
While the foes of LPFM worked to kill the plan through Congress, they also began a “Plan B” through the courts. The NAB filed a motion to have the D.C. District Court suspend the FCC’s new LPFM rules, claiming that the agency moved too quickly on the idea without considering the consequences. The suit lost in the first round and in the summer of 2000 it moved to the D.C. Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, some of LPFM’s most vocal supporters did a surprising about-face and petitioned the FCC to reconsider its rulemaking – right in the middle of the agency’s first LPFM license application window.
The Amherst Alliance, a grassroots LPFM advocacy group co-founded by Schellhardt, and a slew of individuals filed a Motion to Reconsider out of protest at the FCC’s planned LPFM applicant screening process.
The objection, in a nutshell, was that the FCC had set the qualifications for getting a license too high and had banned part of the unlicensed microradio movement from the process – cutting out a large number of those who worked so hard to give the original proposal its momentum.
The FCC denied the motion to reconsider and moved on sluggishly with plans to issue LPFM licenses. On Capitol Hill, the lobbying war heated up.
Microradio Gets a Strategy Overhaul
Excluded from LPFM almost from the start (even though they’d been catalysts for change), radio “pirates” in the United States went back to broadcasting. Over an early June weekend in 2000, past, present and future unlicensed broadcasters met in a “Micropower Council of War” in San Francisco.
Led by Free Radio Berkeley founder Stephen Dunifer, they drafted a platform under the moniker of the Micropower Action Coalition. The agenda called for stepped-up efforts to put more unlicensed stations on the air, spread the word about the movement’s existence, and – for the first time – start initiatives to directly pressure licensed broadcasters.
This new tactic involved two parts: challenging station licenses when they came up for renewal and going after stations’ pocketbooks by convincing advertisers to drop accounts with radio stations.
It’s risky enough just to simply operate an unlicensed station – and even more so to admit it publicly. But instead of just taking the heat, the micropower movement was asked to dish some of it back.
At the same time, the FCC was still going after “pirate radio” with zeal. The crackdown on pirate stations, began at the NAB’s behest in 1997, continued. By mid-2000, the FCC claimed it has shut down 50 stations. It also requested an increase in its enforcement budget for the 2001 fiscal year.
Facing the Enemy
Massive petition drives, letter-writing and phone call campaigns to Congressfolk commenced; some lobbying firms in Washington even lent support on a pro bono basis to try and save low power radio.
Several thousand people also took their message to the streets of San Francisco during the annual NAB radio convention in 2000. While radio industry managers and executives bought each other drinks and discussed mega-deals, protesters thronged the convention site and marched through the streets.
Several confrontations ensued over the course of the convention; some protesters infiltrated inside and disrupted speeches and seminars. Others locked themselves inside the convention hall lobby and had to be cut free by police and firefighters.
A large group of protesters even marched from the NAB convention to the local offices of Clear Channel Communications – the largest radio station group owner in America, with several stations under its thumb in San Francisco.
During confrontations outside the Clear Channel offices, DJs from the corporate stations came out onto the street to harass and assault demonstrators. Some protesters were roughed up and arrested – nothing ever happened to the Clear Channel thugs.
The NAB protest weekend concluded with a massive rally and concert in downtown San Francisco. More than two thousand were on hand for the final festivities. That same night, the NAB was handing out its annual “Marconi Awards” to selected stations just two blocks away.
Once the concert ended, a large part of the audience marched to the hotel where the industry banquet was taking place, bringing riot police onto the scene to stop the mob.
During the protest events, cells of microbroadcasters got together and planned strategies to further the proliferation of unlicensed stations nationwide. Participants in these strategy sessions also vowed to directly confront the corporate media properties in their own communities.
Trumped in Congress
By the fall of 2000, the broadcast industry’s legion of sympathetic votes in Congress had grown substantially. It got the House of Representatives to approve the “Radio Preservation Act” by a substantial margin, and it looked like the votes were coming together in the Senate.
But rather than risking debate on the Senate floor, as battles over the Federal Budget ran into overtime, the NAB convinced Minnesota Senator Rod Grams to attach the anti-LPFM bill to a spending measure funding the FCC and other federal agencies.
On a voice vote alone, this spending bill was approved in December, 2000, and the controversy over the presidential election obscured any scrutiny. Lame-duck president Bill Clinton could not veto the entire budget bill just because of the LPFM “rider,” so he signed it into law.
“Victory!,” screamed NAB and NPR. Using the most underhanded political maneuver available, America’s major broadcast radio interests convinced Congress to eviscerate the LPFM plan.
Over at the FCC, more than a thousand applications for new low power radio stations had already been sent in, filed under the program’s original, less-restrictive rules.
Due to the Congressional meddling in the LPFM service, well more than half – a number FCC Chairman Kennard estimated at more than 80% – of those applications had to be thrown out, just a few bureaucratic steps away from becoming new community voices.
Following the defeat, several Congressfolk who backed the industry cutback in the LPFM plan were either voted out or retired from office. Minnesota Senator Rod Grams, who acted as the front-man for the poison pill, was ousted in a close election.
As Republicans assumed near-complete control of the federal government in 2001, the prospects for low power radio to flourish grew dimmer.
Republican Congressfolk were more likely than not to support the radio industry’s position on low power radio. This did not deter Senator McCain from attempting to right the wrong. McCain was incensed that the jurisdiction of his Senate Commerce Committee was bypassed during the Federal Budget process.
In late February, 2001, McCain introduced the “Low Power Radio Act of 2001,” which would undo the damage the broadcast lobby did to the new LPFM service. The bill would repeal the restrictions forced on LPFM while shielding new stations from potential legal harassment from large corporate radio outlets.
Unfortunately, LPFM was already a dead issue in D.C., and the bill went nowhere.
The FCC in 2001
The Federal Communications Commission, at its highest levels, is also a creature of politics, and when the winds shifted from left to right in the 2000 elections, several high-level officials at the FCC saw the writing on the wall.
The first to leave was FCC Chairman William Kennard. Having been appointed by a Democratic President, he knew his time was running out, and he gracefully resigned before President Clinton left office in January, 2001.
It should be noted that the ruling political party in Washington has ultimate control of the FCC; representatives of that party fill three seats on the five-member Commission.
Newly-inaugurated President George W. Bush tapped FCC Commissioner Michael Powell to chair the Commission. He was one of the two Republican FCC members left over from the Clinton administration, and his industry-friendly decisions, statements and speeches made him a popular pick with the lobbyists.
Powell quickly appointed a vice president from Disney’s washington offices to serve as his chief of staff. Powell’s father, Colin Powell (Secretary of State), once served on the board of America Online – whose mega-merger with Time Warner was approved, in part, by his son.
Powell did not recuse himself from the merger vote: subsequently, his father’s stock interests in AOL soared in value.
Michael Powell is not friendly to low power radio. He was the only Commissioner to split his vote on LPFM’s approval. After assuming the role of Chairman, Powell has tendered conservative lip service to the ideals behind low power radio but has not pushed the agency toward implementing the new service.
Ultimately, several hundred new stations may be licensed around the country, but most (if not all) will be located in relatively rural areas. It is a fact that a significant majority of Americans will not be able to pick up any new stations on their dial.
Back to Breaking the Law
While several unlicensed microbroadcasters voluntarily left the air in hopes of receiving an LPFM license, the cutback in the new service discouraged many potential LPFM station applicants – but some are going on the air anyway.
Spurred by the strategies laid out by the Micropower War Council meetings, broadcasters are implementing more guerrilla-style tactics in their general operations. Many broadcasters now move studio locations regularly, or set up to broadcast from special events within large crowds, where the FCC is less likely to step forward to challenge them.
Still, the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau maintains that cracking down on unlicensed broadcasting remains a top priority. As spring began in 2001, FCC efforts against pirates were apparently stepped up nationwide. The agency went on a spree of stiff fines, station raids and equipment seizures against stations around the country.
Such boldness has been met by equal vitriol from the microbroadcasters, who vow to get more stations on the air to replace those silenced.
A good example of a rebound in radio activism following an FCC sweep the case of Austin, Texas. In 2000, two high-profile microradio stations were raided and silenced. One station, Free Radio Austin, was hit twice.
Instead of caving to government pressure, microradio activists in Austin are pressed forward on all fronts – some have joined forces with San Marcos, TX-based Micro Kind Radio and pursued a federal lawsuit against the FCC. Others started the “Austin Resistance Radio project,” using small, mobile FM transmitters to conduct hit-and-run broadcasts throughout the Texas capital.
Most of the hype over legalization has passed, and the tried-and-true game of cat-and-mouse has evolved. For many microradio activists, the LPFM issue was an educational diversion that has only strengthened their resolve to bring more voices to the radio dial, one way or another.
For some, this includes incorporating new tactics for getting on the air – some of which involve temporarily “borrowing” legal stations’ signals. This tactic “brings the message home” in two ways – it liberates a frequency for public use (albeit temporarily), and it attacks the “legitimate” media directly.
Most of this extreme activity has been limited to translator stations because of their remote and unmanned nature. Such escalation in the war for the airwaves is risky, and the long-term strategy of it is unproven at this point.
Microradio and LPFM in the 21st Century
In 2001, the FCC opened up first filing window for LPFM station applicants. The filing window was spread over a several-month period, with the timing divided by region to prepare the FCC to process the expected torrent of LPFM applications.
Leading up to this window, the Prometheus Radio Project – founded by members of Philadelphia’s Radio Mutiny – conducted a nationwide evangelism campaign to inform and organize interested parties to apply for LPFM stations.
The FCC ultimately received several thousand applications for new LPFM stations. Within two years it had processed and awarded construction permits to more than 1,000 organizations.
During the 2000s, the Prometheus Radio Project traveled the country conducting more than a dozen station “barnraisings,” both to spread the technical and organizational knowledge of grassroots broadcasting and to bring LPFM advocates together to experience tangible success.
In addition, LPFM advocates began a campaign in 2002 to convince Congress to repeal the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act. During years of Republican control, the bill never made it out of both the requisite House and Senate committees.
However, during the end of the 2000s, what became known as the Local Community Radio Act slowly advanced through the legislative grind, session by session, and after nearly 20 attempts it was approved by the lame-duck Congress of 2010.
The Local Community Radio Act effectively repeals the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, but does not completely restore LPFM to the scope as first envisioned by the FCC in 2000. It removes the key third-adjacency frequency provisions which hobbled the service by Congressional fiat in 2001 but still gives full-power and translator stations spectral primacy over LPFM stations.
The Local Community Radio Act will open the FM dial to hundreds of new LPFM stations – for the first time in large urban areas.
Between the passage of the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act and the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA) – a 10-year window – more than 800 LPFM stations took to the air. About half are owned by religious licensees, and the rest by a wide range of community organizations, which range the gamut from existing community groups to social justice organizations.
During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, WQRZ-LP was the only station in its area to remain on the air, broadcasting life-saving information during the storm and its aftermath.
However, during the same time period, the FCC only opened that singular LPFM filing window, and the use of FM translators exploded. This resulted in the flooding of the FM dial with thousands of non-local repeater-stations which mopped up spectrum that might have otherwise gone to LPFM stations. Relative to LPFM’s birth in the first decade of the 21st century, the proliferation of translators is gigantic.
In addition, commercial and public broadcasters began a campaign to encourage the adoption of a digital radio broadcast technology called “HD Radio.” The FCC sanctioned the use of HD Radio technology in 2002; more than 2,000 stations have adopted the technology, which is filled with technological and economic pitfalls that do not make it a viable option for U.S. radio’s digital future.
HD Radio directly effects LPFM stations because it uses more spectrum than an analog FM signal does. As thousands of full-power stations squat on expanded chunks of spectrum, this has the potential to squeeze the future expansion and viability of LPFM. Among LPFM stations, HD Radio is a non-starter.
Meanwhile, microradio operators who opted out of LPFM continue to flourish with abandon.
The number of enforcement actions against pirate stations positively exploded during the first decade of the 21st century. However, after a four-year campaign of heightened (and mostly administrative) enforcement against microradio stations, the FCC’s pirate-bust activity began a decline in 2010.
“Typical” stations are now run by individuals or small groups; they serve historically underrepresented and growing immigrant populations; and are not afraid of engaging in forms of commercialism which both supports their operations and their local economy.
Although microradio is no longer organized around a movement paradigm with an explicit political goal, the number of stations on the air now is larger than ever before in U.S. broadcast history.
Established hot-spots, such as southern Florida and the New York, San Francisco, and Boston metropolitan areas, have dozens of pirate stations on the air, and their ranks. By 2010, stations like Mbanna Kantako’s Human Rights Radio and Freak Radio Santa Cruz have racked up 15 and 23 years of broadcasts respectively.
In Florida and New Jersey, commercial broadcasters convinced their state legislatures to pass their own laws criminalizing unlicensed broadcasting, but these have proven wholly ineffectual in prodding or assisting the FCC to contain the growth of microbroadcasting.
Microradio stations continue to meet the needs of communities where the limits of LPFM prevent it from doing so, such as those in extreme poverty and dense urban markets. LPFM represents a capstone in the 70-year struggle to legalize real community radio in the United States, but the insatiable and changing demands of the public for access to the airwaves remains.
What is LPFM?