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Is Low Power FM Finally Finding its Voice?

The Digital Beat

April 11, 2001

"Is Low Power FM Finally finding its Voice?"


In the Mountain Empire communities of Potrero, Campo and Morena Village, California, local community news is distributed by word-of-mouth and through information placed on post office bulletin boards. There are no daily newspapers, local radio or TV stations in this rural mountainous part of southeast San Diego County, along the border of the United States and Mexico. But soon, residents of the Mountain Empire region -- and hundreds of communities like it -- will be able to exchange information and keep informed through their very own radio station.

In December 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that Mountain Empire Community Broadcasting Inc., along with 255 other local organizations, municipalities, churches and schools, had qualified for licenses to operate low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations. These 100-watt stations will have the power to broadcast in a radius of up to three miles, and are much cheaper to equip than full-power radio stations. LPFM stations will begin airing broadcasts over the next 18 months. The LPFM licenses are intended to serve small, local groups with particular shared needs and interests, such as linguistic and cultural minorities or groups with common civic or educational interests, that may now be underserved by advertiser-supported commercial radio and higher powered noncommercial radio stations.

While thousands of groups and individuals from all over the country submitted comments to the FCC in favor of creation of the new licenses, not everyone was so supportive of the move to open up the airwaves. During the last Congress, an unexpected pairing of special interests forces led by the National Association of Broadcasters and National Public Radio mounted a vigorous behind-the-scenes campaign to kill low-power FM radio before stations were licensed to begin broadcasts. As a result of broadcaster pressure, Congress passed the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act of 2000, severely limiting the number of low-power stations, relegating the new service to primarily rural areas.

FCC officials report that roughly 40% of the applicants who filed were knocked out of contention by the new law. Though temporarily reduced in magnitude, LPFM radio still has the potential to be an important answer to the growing concentration of radio ownership and corporatization of programming and formats. By giving noncommercial organizations a greater stake in the production of programming, LPFM could become a vital outlet for community discourse. Although licenses have been won in many states already, nonprofits should view these stations as potential partners in serving their constituencies.

What is Low-Power FM?

1. A Noncommercial Educational Service with Local Programming
The FCC established LPFM as a noncommercial educational (NCE) service with the goal of creating opportunities for new voices on the airwaves and to allow local groups, including schools, churches and other community-based organizations, to provide programming responsive to local community needs and interests.

An LPFM station may be licensed only to:

nonprofit educational organizations that can show the proposed station will be used for the advancement of an educational program state and local governments and non-government entities that will provide noncommercial public safety radio services

2. Ownership Restrictions
To assure that the new stations contribute to diversity and community-oriented broadcasting, the FCC imposed several ownership restrictions on potential licensees. No current radio station owner or anyone with other media interests (including newspapers or cable systems) will be allowed to own LPFM stations. Additionally, during the first two years of LPFM license eligibility, licensees will be limited to local entities that are physically headquartered, have a campus, or have 75% of their board members residing within 10 miles of the station.

3. Public Interest Obligations
Like all broadcast licensees, LPFM stations are required to operate in the public interest. Specifically, FCC has stated that the provision of a significant amount of locally originated programming is integral to success of this service. This is why it is encouraging the provision of locally originated programming by means of a licensing preference. However, the FCC believes that in certain cases programming need not be locally originated to be responsive to local needs. Therefore, the agency did not impose specific requirements for locally originated programming on LPFM licensees relying instead on the nature of the service, combined with the eligibility criteria and preferences.

LPFM Stations: Who are they?

Schools & School Districts
As former FCC Chairman William Kennard hoped, many schools and school districts have expressed interest in becoming LPFM broadcasters. One such school is Penobscot School ( in the coastal town of Rockland, Maine (pop 8,000), which plans to call its station "Rockland Family Radio." The school intends it to be a true community station with programming reflecting all the diverse interests of people within the city, involving as many individuals and organizations as possible in generating live, locally produced programming.

¯We do not believe we can succeed unless we are adopted by the whole community and recognized by everyone as their voice and resource,² says station manager Joe Steinberger, who hopes to eventually get full power stations to air programs produced by Penobscot's LPFM station. Seeing the station as a gift to the community, Steinberger believes it should be used for better community communication, building of mutual respect and improving the communityês knowledge of itself and its environment. Penobscot School plans to broadcast a range of content, including church services, poetry readings, children's programming, local history, live music, foreign language tutorials and international perspectives.

Rural Areas
Since concerns over interference have prevented LPFM stations from being located in urban areas, it is no surprise that stations are instead springing up in sparsely populated areas around the country. For some of these areas, the new stations could be among the first local media outlets that primarily serve the community. One such an example is Empire Community Broadcasting Inc., mentioned earlier, which is seeking a LPFM license to serve the Mountain Empire communities of San Diego County.

In many parts of the county, San Diego broadcast station signals are blocked by mountains, making it difficult to receive clear reception. Even if the communities were able to receive a clear signal, the San Diego stations offer limited amounts of truly local information. As a result, Empire Community Broadcasting would focus its efforts on issues unique to the area. In addition to having community volunteers provide local news, the station plans to produce (with the help of both volunteers and students) local historical profiles that raise awareness about the significance of the regionês historical sites and parks. There are also plans to develop a partnership with Mountain Empire Unified School District ( to produce a weekly program with student hosts counting down the top 25 songs and providing news about school activities.

Serving Native Americans
A major goal in creating the LPFM class of radio licenses is to increase the voice of segments of communities that have not been well served by full-power broadcasters. A number of stations appear to be focused on serving the needs of Native American communities, including the Sitka Tribe of Alaska ( and the Cherokee Communications Council in Oklahoma, which plans to produce programming in conjunction with Northeastern State University.

Religious Broadcasters
Many of the potential licensees are religious organizations as varied as the First Baptist Church Of Mansfield, California (pop. 5,400); M & D Christian Educational Media of Colquitt, Georgia (pop. 2,000); Tulelake, California (pop. 1,010) Christian Church; Knights Of Columbus Council #7422 Educational Committee of Lyons, Kansas (pop.3,700), and Hope Presbyterian Church of Spicer, Minnesota (pop 1,020).

Adrian Peterson, manager of the New Castle (Indiana) Broadcasting Service, hopes to air a conservative Christian format for the city of 17,100. Programming would come from satellite services as well as local programming developed with the help of volunteers such as students looking for academic credit. Sheês interested in doing community health programming and would work with full-power public radio stations, but there are none serving this area. Peterson does worry about finding both funding and the people and expertise needed to run the station.

Community Access TV Turns to Radio
A few potential LPFM licensees already have experience providing community programming via public access cable television channels. In Davis, California, the operation of a low-power radio station would complement and expand the educational role of Davis Community Television, whose audience is currently limited to cable subscribers. By allowing the general public to listen to DCTV programming, the cable access channel could enhance exposure of the many programs already produced by community members.

With a low-power radio license, DCTVês training program would expand to incorporate radio as well as television, allowing community members to gain valuable experience in that medium. Radio is also seen as an ideal outlet for programs that might be too time-consuming or cost-prohibitive to produce for television. DCTV would use a low-power station as a venue for neighborhood associations, government commissions and student organizations to address specific concerns via roundtable discussions.

LPFM Stations: What to watch

Low-power radio advocates have found an unlikely ally in Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who has introduced legislation that would overturn the recently passed law severely limiting the scope of LPFM. ¯In the interests of would-be new broadcasters, existing broadcasters, but, most of all, the listening public,² McCain introduced the Low-Power Radio Act of 2001 in late February. In a statement made on the Senate floor, Sen. McCain said the bill seeks a remedy to the ¯derailment of the democratic process² that occurred with the passage of the anti-low-power radio appropriations rider in 2000 without a single debate in Congress.

In Sen. McCainês words, the Low-Power Radio Act will allow the FCC to license low-power FM radio stations, while at the same time protecting existing full-power stations from interference -- the concern existing full-power stations used in trying to kill low-power radio. Specifically, the legislation directs the FCC to determine which, if any, low-power radio stations are causing interference to existing full-power stations, and what the low-power FM station must do to alleviate it. Thus, Sen. McCain said, this legislation strikes a fair balance by allowing non-interfering low-power FM stations to operate without further delay, while affecting only those low-power stations that the FCC finds to be causing harmful interference in their actual, everyday operations. (This is totallyconsistent, McCain notes, with the fact that low-power FM is a secondary service which, by law, must cure any interference caused to any primary, full-power service.)

The Low-Power Radio Act, if enacted, could greatly increase the opportunities for nonprofits to become local radio broadcasters. Although passage of MaCainês legislation is considered a long shot, there is hope that positive reports from emerging stations might compel Congress to let the FCC authorize a full LPFM service.

Related Web Sites

Contains low-power radio order, applications, and Applicant's Guide.

Microradio Implementation Project
( General information and education about low-power radio development and licensing process.

National Federation of Community Broadcasters
A national membership organization of community-oriented, non-commercial radio stations.

Sponsors and produces educational tours, conferences, events and literature on microradio and democratic media issues.

Media Access Project
Represented the United Church of Christ Office of Communication and several religious, communication, consumer, and public interest groups before the FCC to support the adoption of LPFM.

National Association of Broadcasters
Major opponents of LPFM.

(c)Benton Foundation, 2001. Redistribution of this publication - both internally and externally -- is encouraged if it includes this message. Past issues of Digital Beat are available online at ( The Digital Beat is a free online news service of the Benton Foundation's Communications Policy Program (../cpphome.html).

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Last updated: rta April 2001 rta