Inside the Low Power FM Movement

This article was originally published in Monitoring Times magazine.

 

All over the country and across the FM broadcast band, there are radio stations operating with the power of a light bulb. These Low Power FM stations (LPFMs) continuously pump out high-powered content. LPFMs are a forum for schools, churches, community centers, farm worker organizations, environmentalists, and just about anyone else who doesn’t get much airtime on the higher-powered commercial and non-commercial stations. And, if all goes well in the next six months, there could be more of them than ever before.

 

Low Power FM Background

To understand the backdrop for Low Power FM radio, we need to look at the history of broadcast radio in the United States. Radio took off in the U.S. in the early 1900s. Most of those early radio stations were run by churches, schools, and individuals operating at less than 100 watts. There was no formal licensing process – new stations simply sprung up wherever there was space on the dial.

In the 1920s, larger companies such as the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) started to create networks of radio stations. Each station in a network would broadcast national material that was delivered over telephone lines from other network stations.

In 1927 Congress stepped in and approved the Radio Act, after being lobbied by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). The Act created the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) to regulate the radio waves. The FRC was given the authority to grant or deny broadcast licenses, with very little direction on how to do so. In practice, the FRC denied licenses mainly to stations that weren’t “professional” enough. This forced many of the smaller, independent radio stations off the dial, while leaving the larger, networked stations on the air.

The rest, as we know, is history. The Communications Act of 1934 replaced the FRC with the broader Federal Communications Commission (FCC), noting that their role was to“regulate the public airwaves in the public interest,” but still offering no specific requirements for soliciting the public’s input.

In 1938, the FCC established Class D radio stations, which were allowed low power (up to 250 watts) and were only granted to non-commercial educational institutions. In 1978, however, the FCC stopped distributing new Class D licenses and forced existing Class D stations to increase their power or cease broadcasting. This left no legal option for small broadcasters who couldn’t afford to operate at higher power, and many of the more community-oriented Class D stations went off the air.

The number of voices on the airwaves grew even smaller with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated the radio industry and allowed single corporations to control more of the airwaves than ever before. In consequence, the number of radio station owners further declined, even as the total number of stations increased.

 

Rebellion in the Ranks 

As big broadcasters gained more control of the licensed spectrum, smaller unlicensed broadcasters known as “micro-broadcasters” began to assert their places on the dial. Some saw their broadcasts as a form of civil disobedience, protesting their lack of access to the airwaves. Others simply chose to broadcast because their views weren’t being represented anywhere else in the media.

The first well-known micro-broadcaster was Mbanna Kantako, who used a 1 watt transmitter to broadcast to his neighbors in a Springfield, Illinois housing project starting in 1987. Kantako used his radio station to discuss police brutality and other issues affecting his neighborhood. Kantako refused to shut down his transmitter after multiple requests by the FCC, insisting that he had a right to have a voice on the airwaves.

Stephen Dunifer of Free Radio Berkeley did the same in California in the early 1990s. Dunifer found himself in legal limbo after he refused to stop broadcasting, which kicked off a protracted court case. While the courts did eventually tell Dunifer to stop broadcasting in 1998, his case inspired many others to jump onto the airwaves where he left off.The real victory for micro-broadcasters came in 2000. After years of shutting down unlicensed broadcasters by fining them and confiscating their equipment, the FCC finally decided to launch a new Low Power FM (LPFM) radio service. The service was to be entirely commercial-free, and licenses would only be granted to non-profit organizations. These licenses would allow stations to operate at no more than 100 watts, powerful enough to provide solid coverage within a 3.5-mile radius of the antenna, depending on the height and terrain of the antenna’s location. Initially, there were also plans to license 10-watt stations, but that part of the service never got off the ground.

This was a major win for micro-broadcasters, who finally had an opportunity to be heard on the air without threats of fines or imprisonment.

 

Low Power to the People!

In 1998, a small group of activists based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania joined forces and started an organization called the Prometheus Radio Project. Just as the mythological Prometheus introduced people to the power of fire, the Prometheus Radio Project sought to introduce people to the power of radio. Prometheus largely grew out of the micro-broadcasting movement; a number of the original members were self-identified “pirates” from West Philadelphia’s unlicensed station “Radio Mutiny.”
Once the FCC announced an opportunity for legal low power radio, Prometheus disengaged from unlicensed broadcasting in order to focus on creating new, licensed LPFMs, while keeping the FCC accountable to their promises.

The Prometheus Radio Project’s work takes several forms. The core component is to help newvoices get on the air. To that end, Prometheus went on tour to spread the word about the low power licensing opportunity to any group that had historically been excluded from the radio spectrum. Prometheus works with each of these organizations through the licensing process, and then supports them in getting on the air.

In some cases, Prometheus even partners with the organization to hold a radio station barn raising to launch their station. At barn raisings, hundreds of local, national, and international volunteers gather to build the station in a weekend. Barn raisings are structured as learning opportunities for everyone: Anyone who is interested in learning new skills is encouraged to work on building that part of the station that interests them. Anyone who already knows how to do something is encouraged to teach someone else. Workshops throughout the weekend promote skill-sharing in a more structured environment as well.
Prometheus barn raisings have launched eleven Low Power FM stations, and just this past September, Prometheus held its twelfth barn raising for WXGC-FM, a 3,000 watt station for Green and Columbia counties in up-state New York.

 

Not so Fast!

In 2000, the FCC announced it would open five licensing windows in which organizations across the country could submit LPFM licenseapplications by region. The first two such windows opened and closed without a hitch. Thousands of applications were filed, many with the help of Prometheus.

Meanwhile, however, the NAB was busy lobbying Congress to restrict LPFM licensing. The NAB distributed what they called a “cross-talk demonstration” CD to members of Congress that purported to simulate the interference they claimed LPFMs would cause to full-service stations if they were allocated as planned. While the FCC reported that the demonstration was “misleading and... simply wrong,” Congress complied with the NAB’s requests anyway, passing the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act that required the FCC to change the rules about where LPFMs could be placed on the dial.

Originally, the licensing process required that an LPFM be a certain distance away from any other licensed station on their frequency (the “co-channel”) or the next two lower or higher stations on the dial (known as the “first-adjacent” or “second-adjacent” frequencies). The new rules added “third-adjacent” restrictions as well, meaning that LPFMs needed to be 0.8 MHz (four “clicks” on the dial) away from any nearby radio stations. With that, 75% of the applicants from the first two windows were eliminated by the new rules and the majority of the organizations that had prepared applications for the final three windows were no longer able to apply.

As part of the Radio Broadcast Preservation Act, Congress also ordered the FCC to carry out a study to learn whether third-adjacent channel interference from LPFMs was actually a threat to full-power radio stations. The study, carried out by the MITRE Corporation, predicted that there would be no significant interference from LPFMs. However, Congress has yet to reverse their ruling based on this evidence.

 

The State of LPFMs

Today, there are over 500 licensed, low power FM stations on the air. While many of these stations are great, a few in particular stand out, offering programming that you can’t find anywhere else on the dial.

One such example can be found in Opelousas, Louisiana, the home of zydeco music. Zydeco is a form of music that evolved from Creole and American Roots musical traditions and is a central focus in the region. Though over 20,000 people attend the zydeco festival in Opelousas each year, none of the local radio stations would play zydeco on the air until recently. This contradiction was part of what inspired the Southern Development Foundation to apply for an LPFM license in 2000. When the station went on the air in 2003 as KOCZ-LP, they gave zydeco a prominent role in their music programming. The station was an immediate hit. In fact, it was so successful that one of the local commercial stations took note and has since addedzydeco to their programming.

Some organizations use their LPFMs primarily as organizing tools. Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) is a farm-worker union in Woodburn, Oregon. Organizers at PCUN wanted to use radio to discuss their issues and mobilize farm workers for their campaigns. They originally paid for a slot on a local commercial radio station, but were soon taken off the air after the station owner learned about the contents of their show. PCUN then applied for an LPFM and was granted a license in 2005. They named their station “Radio Movimiento,” or “Movement Radio.” KPCN-LP went on the air in 2006 and is now the only Spanish-language radio station available to many of its listeners.

Another important role of LPFMs is their ability to provide information to their communities in times of disaster. Larger radio stations often rely on “piped in” programming, sometimes with only a single person overseeing a station locally. Conversely, LPFMs are often run by locals who are attuned to the needs of their communities. What’s more, a 100 watt station (unlike a 100 kilowatt station) can easily be run from emergency back-up power. When Hurricane Ike hit Chalk Hill, Texas, KZQX-LP was able to stay on the air using generators. The station aired road reports and other vital public safety information all through the storm while power was out for over a week.

Unfortunately, these burgeoning stations are under constant threat, because the FCC considers them “secondary” to full-power stations. If a full-power FM station (commercial or non-commercial) applies to move their tower next to that of an LPFM on a nearby frequency, the LPFM is not considered in the review process. In mild cases, this means the LPFM will be subject to interference from the full-power station. In more severe cases, where the LPFM is predicted to cause interference to the full-power station, the LPFM can be taken off the air.

LPFM advocates have been working for years to address this phenomenon, referred to in the LPFM community as “encroachment.” Sometimes, the LPFM can simply move to another frequency. KYRS-LP in Spokane, Washington was granted a waiver to move to a frequency where they were closer to a second-adjacent full-power commercial station than would generally be allowed, but they weren’t expected to cause any interference to the commercial station’s signal. The FCC has since granted a number of other second-adjacent channel waivers to encroached LPFMs.

Ironically, the FCC cannot grant similar third-adjacent waivers because of the restrictions imposed by Congress on third-adjacent LPFM placement, even though the interference concerns are less serious on third-adjacent channels than on second-adjacent channels!

When a change in frequency doesn’t do the trick, the LPFM may need to move to a new transmitting site. Some LPFMs have thus been pushed to the outskirts of town, compromising their ability to reach the communities they are licensed to serve.

  

The Local Community Radio Act

Beyond the threats to existing LPFMs, there’s also the problem that no new LPFM licenses can be issued. Because of the third-adjacent channel restrictions, the FCC has held off opening another licensing window. This leaves thousands of high schools, churches, labor unions, and community groups without access to the airwaves.

There’s hope for change, though. The Local Community Radio Act, known in the House as HR 1147 and in the Senate as S 592, is making its way through Congress as this is written. The bill would eliminate the third-adjacent channel requirements for LPFM licensing. This bill has already passed a full House of Representatives vote and has passed unanimously through the Senate Committee on Commerce, but has yet to pass the full Senate. Insiders such as Senate co-sponsor Patrick Leahy (D-VT) have reported that the bill is well on its way to passage!

 

LPFM in an Age of New Technology 

In a time when much of the hype around radio focuses on Internet streaming and HD Radio (the name given to the industry and FCC approved digital broadcasting format), one common question analog FM operators have to continuously answer is, “Isn’t analog radio dead?”

The truth is that it’s not. According to a recent report from the industry ratings organization Arbitron, 93% of Americans listen to FM radio weekly. In contrast, only 11% listened to internet radio on a weekly basis, and only 26% had even heard of HD radio. And while internet-distributed content is easily accessible on many mobile devices, analog FM remains the easiest media signal to pick up in a vehicle.

Despite the recent opportunity afforded by new FCC rules for HD Radio power increases, the vast majority of LPFMs have not transitioned to the new digital operating platform. HD Radio is a hybrid system that involves using specialized equipment to send a digital signal in addition to the station’s analog signal. The technology is sometimes referred to as IBOC, short for In Band, On Channel, because the digital and analog signals are both sent on the same FM channel.

HD Radio is also expensive. In addition to upfront equipment costs (IBOC transmitters start around $70,000), HD Radio stations are required to pay royalties of $5,000/year to license the technology. That amount is on par with the entire annual operating budget for some small LPFMs! While digital radio may mean positive things for the future of low-power broadcasting, most LPFM operators have recognized that the current implementation just isn’t worthwhile.

On the other hand, LPFMs are quick to recognize the benefits of supplementing their terrestrial broadcast with Internet streaming. Today, over half of licensed LPFMs have a web stream. However, it’s also clear that LPFM operators don’t see streaming as a replacement for FM radio. Many LPFMs operate in rural or underserved parts of the country, where many of their listeners don’t have access to fast enough Internet to listen to a web stream.

Additionally, streaming costs don’t scalewell as listenership increases. While it costs the same amount to operate an FM transmitter regardless of the number of listeners tuning in, streaming stations must pay for more bandwidth as they gain more listeners. For example, one popular provider of hosting services for streaming radio charges $100/month for a moderate-quality stream with up to 25 simultaneous listeners, but $1,500/month for 500 simultaneous listeners. As a result, even successful streaming stations are still looking for LPFM licenses.

Mountain Area Information Network, a community-supported ISP in western North Carolina, has been organizing since 1996 – yet they still took the 2000 opportunity to apply for an LPFM license so they could reach more people. Media Bridges, a community center in Cincinnati that has been streaming for 10 years, launched a low-power station WVQC-LP just this past summer.

Additionally, some community organizations have grown from LPFMs into multi-media hubs. Davis Media Access in Davis, California is home to both KDRT-LP and two public access television stations. Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center in Urbana, Illinois runs a Community Media and Arts Center that houses WRFU-LP as well as production studios and an online news program. Both organizations sponsor ongoing media education programs.

As other organizations begin to utilize radio in their communities, we can expect to see an explosion of community media centers of all varieties.

 

So, you want to start an LPFM?

Perhaps after reading about the power of low power radio, you’re wondering how you can start your own LPFM station. The bad news is that you can’t apply for an LPFM license until a licensing window is opened. The good news is that the FCC has said that if the Local Community Radio Act passes out of the Senate, they’ll open anew window! While nobody knows for sure what the timeline will look like, estimates are that the next window would be 6 months to 2 years after the bill passes.

In any case, now is a good time to start planning for your radio station. For an LPFM application, you’ll need to find a location from which you can broadcast as well as an open frequency. Rec Networks maintains an LPFM channel search tool at http://cdbs.recnet.com/lpfm.php. To get a preliminary idea of whether there’s an open channel in your area, you can do a channel search with the option “LP-100 (except in Puerto Rico & the U.S. Virgin Islands) – MITRE (no 3rd Adj)”. This will account for the lifting of the 3rd-adjacent channel restrictions. If the channel search comes up with a channel, then you’re in luck! If not, there’s still hope – the FCC hasn’t ironed out the rules for the next windows, and further rule changes could open up new channels.

A good next step is to figure out what content you want to play on the air. The FCC doesn’t regulate content on non-commercial stations, as long as you don’t swear or broadcast commercials, and follow a few other basic rules. This means that you’re just as likely to get a license to play Nintendo theme songs as you are to get one to talk about alien encounters. There may be “preference points” for station applicants who pledge to play locally-produced content for a certain number of hours per week, so your chances at a license won’t be as good if you plan on playing syndicated programs all the time.

You should also figure out who you want to work with. Only incorporated, non-profit organizations can apply for LPFM licenses. If you’re not already part of such a group that wants a radio station, consider whether there’s one around with a mission that could fit with your broadcasting vision. If not, find some people to work with and look into your state’s procedures for incorporation.

Once you have all the above details figured out, you can start planning for your station. Check the Prometheus Radio Project website at www.prometheusradio.org for resources on raising money, putting together a board, and finding equipment. Keep an eye on the news, and be ready to apply when the time comes!