Low power economic study = low impact exercise for FCC

This month, we’d like to offer our condolences to the FCC. The Local Community Radio Act started out as a simple mandate for the FCC to expand low power radio. But during its journey to becoming law, various lawmakers added stipulations to please their state broadcast lobbies, each one exacting a toll before allowing the bill to progress. Most of these additions were harmless, a few were burdensome for low power stations, and some just waste the FCC's time. The upcoming economic impact study is in this last category.

Thanks to the messy business of legislative compromise, the Local Community Radio Act requires the FCC to “conduct an economic study to evaluate the impact that low power FM stations will have on full-service commercial stations.” The FCC must complete the study by the end of the year, so they are seeking comments by June 24 on how they should conduct the study.

There are lots of reasons why this study doesn’t make much sense, many of which are addressed by the FCC in their request for comments. How do you measure the economic impact of tiny non-commercial stations, which air no advertisements and aren’t covered by Arbitron ratings? How do you separate out the impact of LPFM from other economic factors that affect commercial stations? Since over half of existing LPFM stations are outside Arbitron markets, how do you study them at all? And how do you judge the impact stations that haven’t been built yet will have in the future?

Good questions (and if you have answers, the FCC wants to hear from you). But we think the economic impact of low power stations is more complex than what the FCC is proposing to study. After all, community radio doesn’t just draw away existing listeners. These stations bring in new listeners who weren’t ever served by other local stations. Their underwriters are often small businesses who weren’t advertising on commercial radio. In fact, maybe community radio increases business for other stations, by bringing more listeners to the dial and pushing commercial radio to do a better job.  

Finally, we have to wonder- even if low power stations do pose a competitive threat to their neighbors, so what? Since when is the FCC responsible for preventing competition? Why not study the impact of commercial stations on low power stations, or the impact of full-power non-commercial stations on full-power commercial stations?

Prometheus will be commenting on these and other reasons why the premise of the economic impact study is flawed, and you can file comments too. Be sure to extend your condolences to the FCC’s Media Bureau staff for this unfortunate exercise. It’s not their fault.

Do you have a story about the impact your station has had (or hasn’t had) on commercial radio? Contact Brandy (at) prometheusradio.org by June 13.