Does anyone win with the FCC's new low-power FM (LPFM) ruling? It seems as though people on both sides of the battle are disappointed with the end product, which was announced last Thursday.
The ruling permits the creation of a new tier of tiny FM-radio stations, between 10 and 100 watts (megastations like KSHE are 100,000 watts), designed to combat the nonstop, megamoney consolidation of the commercial FM dial by offering these little stations a piece of the FM band. It means, in theory, that between big radio stations like The Mix (93.7 FM) and KSHE (94.7 FM) could exist a teensy techno, punk or Christian station at, say, 94.3 FM, one that, because of its low power, would only have a range of a few miles so as not to bleed into the signals of the biggies.
The commercial stations, as represented by the National Association of Broadcasters, are pissed, saying the new stations will still interfere with their signals: "It's a sad day for radio listeners,'' declared Edward Fritts, president of the NAB. This, of course, is the expected response from an association with nothing to gain from the ruling. Usually what's bad for the NAB, the lobbying arm of radio's status quo, is good for those who yearn for variety on the radio dial.
But many on the other side of the issue are disappointed by the end product, too, believing that the FCC made too many concessions to the NAB. The original proposal allowed for much more opportunity for the little guys: As it was originally written by FCC Chairman Bill Kennard, the proposal didn't have the non-commercial-only stipulation, permitting 1,000-watt stations (with a range of 9 miles) in addition to 100-watt stations, and carried fewer restrictions on frequency placement. "In most large markets," explains Rodger Skinner, one of the main proponents of LPFM and the author of a LPFM petition for rule- making, "the FM dial is full. The only way to squeeze in a LPFM was to be able to operate on a second adjacent channel, which we showed would not have caused interference. The FCC voted to keep the second-adjacent-channel restriction in place, thereby killing any chance of finding a frequency to build a LPFM of any power in most large markets. In addition, by making it noncommercial-only, they took away the chance of most stations' being able to support themselves. They then limited it to 100 watts, which provides only 3.5 miles' radius coverage. Radio listenership will decline with the continued consolidation and satellite-fed programming: Would you like to listen to Rush Limbaugh, Rush Limbaugh or Rush Limbaugh?"
Take the example cited above: the creation of a station between The Mix and KSHE. Under the guidelines, this station would not be permitted because not enough frequency space exists between the two stations. In cities crammed with stations, like St. Louis, very few frequencies are available to support the creation of LPFM stations under the FCC's guidelines. An informal run down the St. Louis radio dial produced only three frequencies that could legally support a 100-watt station. Ten-watt stations may become more plentiful, but they have a reach of only 1.5 miles. (Washington University's KWUR is 10 watts.)
LPFM stations in rural areas might thrive under the ruling, because there the dial is less cluttered. Then again, it's less cluttered because there are fewer listeners, so there's less chance a small station could survive.
So the race is on to fill the (paltry) available space. The FCC is likely to begin accepting applications in several months, and updates and filing dates will be posted on the agency's Web site (www.fcc.gov/mmb/prd.lpfm) and made available by phone (888-CALL-FCC).
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