They make their bread and butter on access to the public airwaves, and for decades they have agitated against newcomers and ne’er-do-wells vying for a piece of the dial. But a skirmish between two commercial broadcasters over interference caused by an FM translator suggests that some radio broadcasters see over-the-air transmission slipping in importance as the primary conduit for their content.
Reply comments in the FCC’s ongoing rulemaking to expand the LPFM service are due on September 27. REC Networks‘ Michi Eyre has written an excellent (and wonky!) summary of comments filed in the proceeding to date by those who have focused on the elephant in the room – the troubled relationship between LPFM and FM translator stations.
Over the last twenty years, the use of FM translators has evolved dramatically. Once a secondary service, such stations are now being deployed as stand-alone outlets around the country. Following the creation of the LPFM service, broadcasters made a run on spectrum for FM translators which has resulted in seven translators going on the air for every one LPFM station over the last decade.
Clear Channel is the nation’s largest commercial radio broadcaster. Educational Media Foundation is one of the nation’s largest religious radio broadcasters. Both companies have an affinity for FM translators – and now, they’re working together for mutual enrichment at the expense of others on the dial.
EMF operates the K-LOVE and AIR-1 Christian music networks. It owns several hundred FM translators around the country; during the Great Translator Invasion of 2003, when more than 13,000 new translator applications were filed, EMF tendered paperwork for 875 new translators.
Clear Channel owns more than 700 full-power radio stations, and over the last few years it has also acquired or leased FM translators to rebroadcast some of its “beleaguered” AM stations as well as to simulcast otherwise-unheard HD Radio programming in analog form.
This week the FCC released another Notice of Proposed Rulemaking designed to expand the LPFM service, with special emphasis on the placement of new LPFM stations in cities. The primary point of contention is how the agency should treat LPFM stations with regard to FM translators.
(A quick overview: LPFM stations broadcast with 100 watts or less and must be live and local, while FM translators can broadcast with up to 250 watts and may not originate their own programming.)
The spectral conflict between LPFM and translator stations is a big one. On purely technical grounds they are essentially equivalent services, but by rule translators may be sited closer to neighbors on the dial than LPFM stations can. In addition, since the first round of LPFMs were licensed a decade ago (of which 829 are on the air), several thousand FM translators have begun broadcasting in the intervening years.
Nearly a year ago it came to light that radio broadcasters were using FM translator stations as a sort of “back door” to provide more exposure for their HD Radio signals.
Ironically, these translators do not broadcast in digital; rather, many HD-capable radio stations are rebroadcasting their digital-only (“multicast”) programming via analog translator as a way to recoup their investment in a technology which has no meaningful audience.
Some radio conglomerates have purchased or signed lease agreements with FM translator owners to create ostensibly “new” stations in markets around the country in this manner. The practice has caused difficulty for independent broadcasters.