Historic accord reached between Prometheus and the Educational Media Foundation

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After years of filings, counterfilings, and differences as intractable as the Hatfields and the McCoys, Prometheus and large translator network Educational Media Foundation (EMF) have come to an understanding about the future status of translators and low power FM (LPFM) stations. Translators are the mini-stations that repeat the signals of other stations, often in chains over long distances. EMF is the third largest applicant for non-commercial FCC translator licenses, with over 800 applications in the 2003 filing window. These applications, along with the other 14,000 filed at that time, put dibs on most of the urban frequencies which the FCC intended to distribute to small local organizations for low power radio stations. Unfortunately, low power radio was put on hold by Congress in 2000 in these urban areas, as the result of false claims from broadcasters about interference. Ironically, Congress was unaware that these very same channels could be used under existing law by translators, which operate at even higher power levels. (The Congressional freeze on low power was endorsed by the first and second largest applicants for translators, Radio Assist Ministries and Edgewater Broadcasting. Once passed, the Local Community Radio Act will reverse this freeze.)

Over the years, Prometheus has advocated for some or all translators to be considered secondary to low power stations, so that a local organization with no other radio stations has priority over translators repeating signals across large networkers when the FCC allocates a channel.. In 2005, Prometheus convinced the FCC of the injustice of distributing these last urban frequencies to repeater stations before low power stations had their chance to apply. The FCC has consequently stalled the processing of those translator applications competing for urban stations for seven years now. While the FCC has made encouraging moves, it has been a big headache for everyone to figure out how to untangle the competing priorities and legal claims.

After months of discussions, Prometheus and EMF have finally found a way to split the Gordian Knot that entangles translators and LPFMs.

Under this deal, EMF and Prometheus together call for a continuation of the freeze on translator processing until after the next opportunity for LPFM applications. Any previous translator applications on channels claimed by new LPFM applications would be dismissed. This enormously frees up channel availability for LPFMs in urban areas.

Together, we also call for a removal of the “10 cap” that the FCC imposed on further grants of applications in that window. The 10 cap would have limited each translator applicant to ten applications. While Prometheus believes that limits on applications in general serve the public interest, the situation is legally complicated by the fact that the FCC imposed no original cap on applications in the window. While we believe that the FCC would ultimately prevail, the translator applicants could bring this to the courts and draw out resolution of the issue for years. More importantly for us, the caps do not ensure availability of LPFM stations in urban markets. LPFM urban availability is better served by making all 2003 applications wait until after a LPFM filing window, rather than a cap on processing.

EMF agreed to wait for LPFMs to apply first, giving up their applications for spots taken by new LPFMs. They also agreed that after this first round, translators and LPFMs could apply simultaneously in future application windows, and LPFMs should have first priority for any channel.

In exchange, Prometheus agreed to drop our requests that LPFMs be made primary to translators already on the air, or any new translator once it is built. This means that once a translator is built, it cannot be displaced by an LPFM. We also agreed that we would drop our support for the cap of ten on outstanding translators; if there are translator applications in areas where no LPFM wants to build, even a large translator network can fill in these rural areas.

The real problem with giant radio empires is that local communities lose their voice on the airwaves. This plan serves the FCC’s mission to support localism; local groups will always have priority over giant chains for these small station licenses. If the FCC adopts this plan once the Local Community Radio Act is passed, there will be at least a few frequencies available for LPFMs almost everywhere, probably even in some of the biggest cities. The FCC has not yet made a decision, and there are still aspects to work out. But we are excited at the possibility of moving ahead and building radio stations.