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Editorial: Back to the future with Low Power FM

Brad Hill

Holiday gift idea for next year: your own hyperlocal radio station. It's a gift from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Non-profit community radio stations, which broadcast in a range from a few hundred yards to about three miles, can be a mode of self-expression, a valuable provider of town information and an antidote to radio homogenization up and down the broadcast dial.

The FCC has just established new rules governing the application process, authorization guidelines and operating conditions to encourage Low Power FM (LPFM) stations, and will be reviewing station proposals a year from now. Given radio's nearly undiminished clout in the face of media encroachment by all kinds of digital news and music platforms, LPFM represents a back-to-the-future power play on behalf of independent programmers.

A radical embrace of post-1995 media technology might not include listening to the radio. Radio is the oldest of old school. The first relevant electromagnetic wave experiments happened during Civil War times, and Guglielmo Marconi obtained his first radio-related patent in 1885. (He purchased it from Thomas Edison. A presage of present-day patent maneuvers?) Marconi gave a successful transmission demo in 1895. He established a radio station the next year, and built a radio receiver factory the year after that. That's what you call a successful startup. The first commercial station in the US (KDKA) was fired up in 1920.

In my teenage years, radio was it for music discovery engines -- passive, non-interactive, highly curated, repetitive, in some cases corrupt. And it got worse as gigantic media holding companies created standardized station chains, in some cases eliminating all personalization and local programming. Corruption continued. Music discovery was rejuvenated on the internet by file-sharing, music subscriptions, YouTube and social streaming platforms.

Radio's listenership hasn't suffered from technology disruption as much as you might expect. Use of radio is much higher than general use of the internet, and nearly twice the size of internet radio. For all the exploration advantages of interactive technology, radio benefits from a commanding ease of use. Its most ancient attribute, that it exists in the air, makes it refreshingly untethered compared to TV, harmonizing with a growing cord-cutting movement. And radio's iron grip on car listening, where the driver is busy interacting with the steering wheel, is its greatest installed advantage. (Indicators are developing that Pandora is stealing listener share from the AM/FM audience, as the internet-native streaming service infiltrates the auto cockpit.)

Prometheus Radio Project

Music lovers have alternatives to unadventurous radio. College stations, for example, are uniformly devil-may-care programmers, even as they vary in professionalism. But cozy regionalism is rare, and that void is recognized as a problem by the governing body of America's airwaves, the FCC. The commission planted a stake in 2000 when it sanctioned community radio stations operating at very low power (100 watts or less). As you've probably noticed, community radio hasn't taken off substantially in the ensuing 12 years. Only a single LPFM station is broadcasting in the top 50 radio markets, which, according to the Prometheus Radio Project, represents 160 million residents not enticed by small-scale rogue programmers.

Part of the uptake problem has resulted from lobbying pressure applied by corporate FM operators, who don't want highly differentiated competition eating into their one-size-fits-all output. Radio turf protection is played out on the frequency dial, with a barrier to entry called the "adjacency rule." This rule establishes how close two FM operating frequencies can be to each other. The FM dial is divided into "clicks," according to the odd-numbered FM decimal system that runs up from 87.5 to 107.9. The signal of a station located at 91.5 might suffer from interference by another station broadcasting one click away at 91.7, depending on power and location. FM turf boundaries are regulated by the FCC.

The 2000 FCC action was hobbled by a three-click adjacency rule, meaning that the 91.5 station was buffered by a frequency territory up to 92.3 (four clicks away) within a prescribed region and power signature. Of course it is preposterous to suppose that a 100-watt antenna in somebody's back yard would compromise the signal integrity and profit margin of a 30,000-watt urban powerhouse, and the MITRE study of 2003 wholly debunked the absurd protectionism.

A series of congressional bills led to the Local Community Radio Act of 2010, and last week's unanimous endorsement of rules, by the FCC's five commissioners, finalized the LPFM startup criteria. Most provocatively, frequency fences have been dismantled with a one-click adjacency boundary (meaning new stations must be two clicks away from existing stations). The FCC has also expanded the allowance of translators, which effectively replicate a station's signal in an outlying region, to three translators in highly populated areas and 20 of them in rural territories.

It's not easy to start a radio station. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn notes in her agreement opinion (PDF link) that 25 percent of existing authorizations have not been built. She asserts the FCC's intent to reduce speculative applications, but this is where idealism might collide with reality. The FCC commissioners declaim euphorically about the diversity potential, and the many aspects of local value, that a swarm of hyperlocal community broadcasters would bring to the airwaves. Clyburn cites a New Orleans LPFM station that remained on the air during Katrina when the big outlets went silent.

LPFM Radio Kit

The FCC wants serious applicants who have the technical and financial resources to build a permanent transmission facility, and intend to broadcast at least eight hours a day. That is one serious hobby. Certainly, past applicants who have been frustrated and denied by adjacency blackouts, and who can now stake a claim, may grab the opportunity. But the vision of a new world proliferating in a re-energized FM band might develop more slowly than hoped for by the advocates who created these progressive new guidelines.

What about demand? Does hyperlocal work in any medium? Town newspapers have been skewered by the web. Website alternatives to those newspapers remain unproven after years of attempts. My town has a public TV station, and wow, do I never watch it.

Radio is different though, at least for me, and I'm probably speaking for a potential audience of some undetermined size. There is a romance to radio for me, and there is the over-the-air ubiquity of it. And, of course, the car. Local programming could have an immediacy that might pull me away from yet another installment of NPR's Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me on a Saturday morning -- especially since most existing radio franchises are available online.

As with any other medium, audience and traffic depend on the content. Programming freedom and individuation are the keystone values the FCC has protected in this action. For that the agency should be congratulated. And here's a holiday wish for its commissioners: May all their most rhapsodic visions for a frothing grass-roots broadcasting culture come true.

Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He has a lifelong love of radio, and has worked as a broadcast DJ.

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