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What is low power FM?
Low Power FM (LPFM) stations are noncommercial radio stations licensed by the FCC. They are owned and operated by nonprofit organizations, schools, community groups, local governments, public-access cable TV stations, libraries and churches. They run at 100 watts or less, reaching a radius of about 3-5 miles. Unlike larger noncommercial stations, like the kind operated by NPR affiliates and religious groups, LPFMs must be locally owned and operated and are intended to serve small areas like city neighborhoods and small towns.
Who is eligible to apply?
Only locally based nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and federally recognized Tribes are eligible for Low Power FM radio stations. Organizations must be local: your station has to be located in the area where your organization is based or has a campus. Nonprofit organizations must be headquartered within 10 miles (20 miles outside of the top 50 markets) of the proposed antenna. If the location of your headquarters or campus does not meet this requirement or if you don’t have a headquarters, then you must show that 75% of your board members live within that area.
The FCC also looks at the makeup of your board of directors to decide if your group is eligible. The requirements are:
- The board members of your organization and their family members may not control another broadcast license
- 80% of your board members must be US citizens.
- Board members must report any felony convictions from the past ten years, and the FCC may disqualify your application on this basis.
- Board members must not have drug convictions that resulted in the denial of federal benefits.
- Board members must not have engaged in unlicensed (pirate) broadcasting.
There are some exceptions to these board requirements, so if you’re not sure whether your organization meets the guidelines refer to the FCC instructions.
What does the FCC look for in your application? There are three main factors:
- You must prove that your organization is eligible. You will need to submit documentation about your organization’s nonprofit status and your plans for a noncommercial, educational station. More on this below.
- You can qualify for extra priority “points” by meeting special criteria. If you have competitors in your area, the FCC will grant the license to the competing group with the most points.
- You must prove that there is room for a station at your location and on your proposed FM channel. Most groups will need to hire an engineer to produce a study of your local area demonstrating that your future station won’t cause interference to neighboring stations.
Can our nonprofit apply?
Let’s start with a really quick check of two things to see if it makes sense to pursue a new LPFM (low-power FM) application.
First, only a qualifying nonprofit (which you can create if necessary) can apply for an LPFM license. The nonprofit board members cannot be known to the FCC (or can be proven to the FCC) as current or former pirate radio broadcasters, and your headquarters must be within 10 miles of your antenna. For full details on eligibility requirements, see Guide to Non-Engineering Sections of FCC Low Power Radio Application.
Second, frequencies are not available in many areas of the country, so use the simple frequency checker below. If it says no, then there’s no way to cover that zip code with a new station. If it says yes then you can safely proceed, but you may still want an engineer, and will probably need an engineer to evaluate any “maybe” frequencies it finds. If a frequency is available, part of your work will be finding a suitable antenna site.
If you feel you can meet the nonprofit requirements and a frequency’s available, it’s time to dive into the details.
How much does it cost?
The FCC does not charge a fee for Low Power FM applications or to hold a license. Since you only have one chance to get one of these licenses, you should budget $1000 – $2,000 to hire an engineer to help you with the technical portion of the application. If you are awarded a ‘construction permit’ to build the station from the FCC, you will need to raise money to purchase and install audio and broadcast equipment like your transmitter and antenna. Depending on your ambitions and the complexity of your transmission site, you could spend $15,000 to $50,000 or more on construction. Most stations with simple antenna/tower designs can get on the air for less than $20,000. You have 3 years to fundraise and start broadcasting once you receive a permit.
What are the programming restrictions for a low power FM station?
A Low Power FM license is a “non-commercial educational” license, which means your station must have an educational mission and operate according to the FCC’s non-commercial rules. The FCC does not evaluate your application on the merits of the educational program you submit or the mission of your organization. Low Power FM stations air a diversity of programming, including music, news, public affairs, etc. You cannot air paid advertisements, but you can have underwriting, which allows you to accept contributions from businesses in exchange for informational, non-promotional announcements on the air.
What are the legal risks involved in running a radio station?
Ownership of a radio license comes with a degree of liability, like any activity your nonprofit pursues. In the field of broadcasting, FCC fines are the primary liability your organization might face. FCC fines are relatively rare and these fines are easily preventable by having good procedures to make sure your station complies with FCC rules. Fines can be incurred for things like airing commercial announcements, operating without an Emergency Alert System, or operating with a greater power or antenna height than authorized. If your station purchases the appropriate equipment (type-certified transmitter, Emergency Alert device), follows FCC rules and the terms of your FCC license, and completes all scheduled FCC filings in a timely manner, you can be confident of avoiding fines.
What kind of paperwork and reporting is required?
Every radio station is required to renew their FCC license every 8 years. This is a short form, similar to the original application, filed in the FCC’s Licensing Management System (LMS). The license renewal is a chance for the FCC to hear from the public about your station and for you to tell the FCC that you are operational and plan to continue broadcasting.
The FCC and FEMA coordinate annual tests of the national Emergency Alert System and LPFM stations are required to participate. You will need to monitor your EAS device and file online forms in the FCC’s ETRS system according to the FCC’s published deadlines, usually annually.
You will also need to keep your organizational information up to date by submitting periodic filings via the FCC’s LMS website, including updates to board members and contact information for your organization. New board members and the whole board itself must be evaluated for continuing compliance with the FCC’s rules for broadcast and LPFM ownership.
Is an LPFM feasible for an organization our size?
There are about 2000 Low Power FM stations on air today, many of them run completely by volunteers. These licenses are designed for smaller organizations to broadcast to their neighborhoods and communities. The costs and complexity to operate LPFM stations is considerably less than a full power station but they are still significant. You should think carefully about who in your organization will take on the responsibility to operate the station on a day-to-day basis and if you will be able to raise significant funding to maintain the station.
Can we transfer the license at a later date?
Yes, you can transfer a Low Power FM license to another eligible organization in your area 18 months after your original permit is granted or any time thereafter. The new organization will need to be eligible to own the station and the transfer will need to be filed and approved by the FCC. Unlike full power stations, LPFM licenses cannot be bought and sold. LPFM license holders can sell used equipment and facilities at their fair market value along with transferring the FCC license.