A Brief History of the Local Community Radio Act of 2009

Posted on July 11, 2010 by

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By Curtis Prendergast and Hank Stephenson

Anyone who starts a low-power FM, or LPFM, station is in constant danger of being shut down by the Federal Communications Commission. Their crime? Operating an unlicensed station.

As it stands, it certainly is difficult to get into the LPFM game legally.  Actually, it’s impossible.  The FCC stopped issuing new LPFM licenses nearly a decade ago.  The good news for those that want to start an LPFM is that the moratorium on LPFM licenses may be coming to an end. The Local Community Radio Act of 2009, which would allow the FCC to resume granting LPFM licenses, is currently making its way through Congress.

Although no new licenses are being issued, there are currently more than 800 licensed LPFM stations in the United States, of which 11 are in Arizona.  These stations are licensed because they were able to take advantage of a brief window that opened in January of 2000, only to close that December, according to congressional records.

The LPFM stations that applied while the window was open were allowed to keep their licenses, said Pete Tridish of the Prometheus Radio Project.  This Philadelphia-based organization champions the LPFM movement and has promoted the bills currently in Congress.

There is no way to determine how many LPFM licenses would be available to Tucsonans until the bill is passed and applications are accepted.  The number of LPFM licenses that would be issued if the bills pass depends on technical factors, such as broadcast interference and proximity to existing stations, said Tridish.

The LPFM experience in the 21st Century

On Jan. 20, 2000, the FCC decided to start re-issuing LPFM licenses.  The decision was a response to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which loosened regulations on how many broadcast stations any one company could own in a given market.  The act, according to the FCC, led to increased consolidation in media markets and decreased diversity in the industry.  Allowing LPFM licenses to be issued to the public was seen as a way to combat the consolidating effects of the Act.

But the move was not well received by the National Association of Broadcasters, National Public Radio, and enough members of Congress to pass a law that would put LPFM licensing on ice for the next ten years.  On Dec. 21, 2000 President Clinton signed into law the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, which ordered the FCC to stop issuing LPFM licenses until an engineering study of potential interference was completed.

On March 22, 2001 the FCC imposed a “third-adjacent channel minimum distance,” the same distance required for full-power radio stations.  This meant that LPFM stations could not broadcast on a frequency that was within three frequencies of another station.  For example, LPFM stations were prohibited from broadcasting on 92.5 FM if existing radio stations already broadcast on 92.1 or 92.9 FM.

Interference levels caused by LPFM stations were the focus of the first phase of the engineering study ordered by the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act. The study was conducted by the not-for-profit Mitre Corporation and the results of the first phase of the engineering study were delivered to the FCC on June 2, 2003.

The Mitre Report found that “LPFM stations do not pose a significant risk of causing interference to existing full-service FM stations” and that “there appears to be no public interest reason to retain third-adjacent minimum distance separation requirement for LPFM stations.” It recommended that “Congress should re-address this issue and modify the statute to eliminate the third-adjacent channel distant separation requirements for LPFM stations.”

The Local Community Radio Act of 2009

The most recent attempt to re-open the airwaves to LPFM stations comes in the form of The Local Community Radio Act of 2009. This bill is not the first of its kind, two previous attempts were made to allow the FCC to issue LPFM licenses. In 2004, the year after the Mitre Report was presented to the FCC, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) cosponsored a bill that would implement the recommendations of the Mitre Report.  The bill, and a nearly identical one in 2007, never reached the floor of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

The current bill would give the Federal Communications Commission the authority to issue licenses for LPFM radio stations without the third-adjacent minimum requirement, but with the stipulation that anyone who has been involved in unlicensed radio broadcasting not be allowed to apply for a LPFM license.

The bill has survived longer than its predecessors. It was passed by the House of Representatives on Dec. 16, 2009.  The bill in the House, HR 1147, is sponsored by Rep. Michael F. Doyle (D-PA) and has 86 cosponsors. “The bill will allow the FCC to license several thousand new community radio stations across the country,” said Kenneth DeGraff, legislative director for Congressman Doyle.

The bill is now going through the Senate.  The Senate bill, S. 592, was introduced on March 3, 2009 by Sen. Cantwell and is co-sponsored by Sen. McCain. On Nov. 19, 2009 the bill was passed unanimously in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.  The next major step would be a vote on the Senate floor.

If the bill passes both houses it will arrive on President Barack Obama’s desk, where it has a good chance of being signed into law. After all, Senator Obama was a co-sponsor of the 2007 bill.

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