Harnessing the power of FM

You’re cruising north on U.S. 101 heading out of  San Francisco when your favorite Bay Area FM radio station begins to crackle, fading in and out. You hit the search button and find another broadcast that suits your taste.

A few miles later, that local jazz station also begins to die. Welcome to the limited audio world of low-power FM broadcasting (LPFM). Your jazz station was just one of nearly 100 Northern California low-power stations operating today.

LPFM, according to the Federal Communications Commission, is a broadcast station operating at a low electrical power to a smaller service area than “full power” stations within the same region. LPFM is a non-commercial educational broadcast service and licenses may be issued to non-commercial educational entities and public safety and transportation organizations. Individuals and holders of other types of broadcast licenses are not eligible to have an LPFM license.

New Class of Radio Station

In January 2000, the FCC established LPFM as a new class of station. These stations are allowed to operate at one to 10 or 50 to 100 watts of power, compared to the minimum requirement for commercial stations of 100 watts. That means their broadcast range is 3.5 miles by law – though some can be heard a bit farther out. The first LPFM stations were supported by activists and groups associated with music artists, church leaders, educators and political groups – all deemed “educational.”

“The original purpose of LPFM was to serve as an alternative to ‘radio homogenization,’ as described in the Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly (J&MC), as “ . . . Necessary to offset the growing consolidation of station ownership in the wake of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed caps on radio ownership, as well as the decline of locally produced radio programming.” The Quarterly reports on research in journalism and mass communication.

President Bill Clinton was an early advocate of LPFM: “It is giving voice to the voiceless,” including schools, community groups, churches, and ethnic groups.

Pioneer LPFM Supporters

Early supporters of LPFM, including Free Press, which describes itself as a non-partisan advocacy organization pushing for media reform, specifically in promoting “diversity and independent media ownership, strong public media, and universal access to communications,” supported LPFM because it:

  • strengthens community identity.
  • creates an outlet for amateur musicians to get their music heard.
  • creates diversity on the air because women and racial minorities are represented.
  • creates an opportunity for young people, especially college students, who are interested in radio to learn about the business.
  • provides farmers with up to date agricultural information.

Prometheus Radio Project, a non-profit organization that “builds, supports, and advocates for community radio stations that empower participatory community voices and movements for social change,” also supported LPFM because it believes:

  • the media should not limit democratic participation but should provide a way for communities and movements to express themselves.
  • public airwaves shouldn’t be concentrated in private/corporate hands.
  • low-power FM gives a voice to communities.
  • low-power FM needs to be protected from big broadcasters.

Opposition to LPFM

The most vocal early opposition to LPFMs came from the National Association of Broadcasters, which cited signal interference on the FM band and opposed the act to “maintain spectrum integrity” for commercial broadcasting, said group President Edward O. Fritts.

High-power FM stations are concerned that LPFM stations may interfere with their signals if adjacent-channel interference protections are not observed. The association also said that full-power FM broadcasters “enhance localism” by providing community-responsive information such as emergency information. It also said that allowing low-power FM stations to have equal spectrum rights could be detrimental to these necessary programs.

NPR was another major opponent to low-power FM. “Allowing more flexible rules for LPFM would burden other stations by forcing them to deal with interference problems and because full-power broadcasters reach a broader audience and provide a greater service, they should be favored regarding spectrum availability.”

Some investors in radio believed early LPFM services might prevent further development of digital radio.

Local Community Radio Act

The Local Community Radio Act of 2010 (based upon legislation originally introduced in 2005) was signed into law by President Barack Obama on Jan. 4, 2011.

After the bill became law, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said, “Low power FM stations are small, but they make a giant contribution to local community programming. This important law eliminates the unnecessary restrictions that kept these local stations off the air in cities and towns across the country.”

The Act, in brief, stated the FCC was to modify its rules to eliminate third-adjacent minimum distance separation requirements between low-power FM stations and full-service FM stations.

Affordable to Operate

LPFM stations are considered affordable to operate compared to FM stations, the annual operating costs of which can run up to a million dollars or more depending on location. These can only be operated by businesses and the very wealthy. An antenna and transmitter for LPFM might only cost around $2,000 to $5,000.

That’s why the 1960s folk music you’ve enjoyed for a few miles fades away and the next LPFM selection you hit is a ranting pastor, then onto an agricultural update and the realization that it really is a long, long drive between Santa Rosa and Eureka.

Want to apply for an LPFM license to operate a station? Here are some common questions and answers, courtesy of the FCC.