It seemed like a huge victory for those fighting for access to the airwaves when the FCC decided on January 20 to re-legalize low power radio in the United States.
The celebration was short-lived, however, when the details of the plan were laid bare. In addition, those who fought the idea all along have redoubled their efforts to kill the new LPFM service with legal and legislative pressures and a burgeoning propaganda campaign.
In the midst of the largest firestorm low power radio's ever experienced, the Amherst Alliance has petitioned the FCC to take a second look at LPFM - officially filing a Motion For Reconsideration over the newly-created regulations.
By filing this motion, the Amherst Alliance - whose co-founder, Don Schellhardt, helped write one of the two original low power radio proposals - forces the FCC to respond.
The powers-that-be at the FCC have already taken a lot of heat - just how receptive will they be to taking on a bit more? Let's look at what the Amherst Alliance are asking for.
250 watt upgrades after two years. As part of what it calls an "Automatic Program Review" to be conducted two years after the first legal low power station signs on the air, Amherst is asking the FCC to re-visit the possibility of LPFM stations with more than 100 watts.
It's not quite a resurrection of the LP-1000 station concept; higher-power stations would be restricted to a 250-watt maximum and could only be located outside the top 50 media markets. But the idea is to fill in the gaps where 100 watt stations haven't proven practical.
A Possible Low Power AM Service. Because of the way the new LPFM service is structured, available frequencies in urban areas range from slim pickings to non-existent. During the "Review" mentioned above, Amherst wants the FCC to consider low power AM as a substitute service to help those areas where LPFM isn't technically possible.
This idea was originally rejected early on when the FCC first began considering the concept of re-legalizing low power radio.
Re-Define "Educational" Programming. The FCC's new LPFM rules say these stations must be "non-commercial educational" in nature. The definition of "educational" currently used by the FCC restricts these types of stations to licensed educational institutions, or to entities whose goal is to provide information-based programming to an audience.
However, this definition doesn't include niche formats of entertainment-related educational programming. Amherst's examples include "polka," "mainstream Spanish language music," "madrigal singing," and "live 'poetry slams.'" Amherst wants the FCC to re-define "educational" in the LPFM realm to include such entertainment-based programming, provided it can't be found anywhere else on the dial.
Cleaning House in the Translator Spectrum Grab. Ever since the creation of LPFM was announced, religious organizations who currently run networks of dozens (if not hundreds) of small FM translator stations that rebroadcast their programming have begun filing for new frequencies.
It is an attempt to snap up any available spots on the dial and prevent new LPFM stations from actually going on the air.
The Amherst Alliance wants the FCC to go back and re-examine all the translator applications filed since the announcement of LPFM and throw out any applications that fit the following criteria:
"(I) the broadcaster in question is engaging in a multi-market pattern or 'warehousing' frequencies; and
(II) the LPFM applicant(s) in question would broaden more fully the range of choices for local listeners."
This might put the FCC in a tough position - having to choose whose programming would provide more of a public service. It's the kind of decision-making the FCC has strongly refused to do in the past.
Freezing Full Power Station Modification. Full-power stations apply to modify their facilities on a daily basis. Some ask for more or less wattage while raising or lowering their antenna height. Others ask to move their facilities closer to other markets as a way to attract more listeners (and revenue). All of these modifications have an effect on just what open frequencies are available in a market. Some modifications open new frequencies, others take them away.
Amherst wants the FCC to effectively stop any modifications that would change the availability of open frequencies until after the first round of LPFM licenses have been applied for (which is supposed to happen in May). This would put many commercial radio station upgrades and improvements on hold - further irritating LPFM's worst enemies.
Allowing Experimental Stations in Congested Areas. The interference standards used by the FCC to site radio stations are woefully outdated and have not kept pace with today's radio receivers, which have improved abilities to tune in a station clearly.
Since many urban areas would still be left without any LPFM service under the new rules, the Amherst Alliance is asking the FCC to relax its interference standards even more than it already has to allow "demonstration stations" of 10 watts or less in areas that would otherwise be denied service. If these stations can prove interference-free operation for two years, they would be allowed to stay on the air.
Again, this directly targets the interference issue which is currently the source of so much anti-LPFM lobbying in Congress and the courts.
The Amherst Alliance's Motion for Reconsideration contains many more suggestions to improve the newly-approved LPFM service. It is not meant to suggest that the Alliance isn't happy with what's been accomplished so far - rather, it was written to provide "one last round of feedback to the Commission before the new rule has solidified completely."
But Don Schellhardt and the Amherst Alliance are the first low power radio advocates to step forward and point out LPFM's flaws. That is significant, because it shows that many of those who petitioned for access to the airwaves still feel somewhat shut out.
Whether the FCC can stand up to more fire is debatable - but it sure must feel like it's being attacked from all sides now.