Microradio and LPFM in the 21st Century
In 2001, the FCC opened up first filing window for LPFM station applicants. The filing window was spread over a several-month period, with the timing divided by region to prepare the FCC to process the expected torrent of LPFM applications.
Leading up to this window, the Prometheus Radio Project - founded by members of Philadelphia's Radio Mutiny - conducted a nationwide evangelism campaign to inform and organize interested parties to apply for LPFM stations.
The FCC ultimately received several thousand applications for new LPFM stations. Within two years it had processed and awarded construction permits to more than 1,000 organizations.
During 2000s, the Prometheus Radio Project traveled the country conducting more than a dozen station "barnraisings," both to spread the technical and organizational knowledge of grassroots broadcasting and to bring LPFM advocates together to experience tangible success.
In addition, LPFM advocates began a campaign in 2002 to convince Congress to repeal the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act. During years of Republican control, the bill never made it out of both the requisite House and Senate committees.
However, during the end of the 2000s, what became known as the Local Community Radio Act slowly advanced through the legislative grind, session by session, and after nearly 20 attempts it was approved by the lame-duck Congress of 2010.
The Local Community Radio Act effectively repeals the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act, but does not completely restore LPFM to the scope as first envisioned by the FCC in 2000. It removes the key third-adjacency frequency provisions which hobbled the service by Congressional fiat in 2001 but still gives full-power and translator stations spectral primacy over LPFM stations.
The Local Community Radio Act will open the FM dial to hundreds of new LPFM stations - for the first time in large urban areas.
Between the passage of the Radio Broadcasting Preservation Act and the Local Community Radio Act (LCRA) - a 10-year window - more than 800 LPFM stations took to the air. About half are owned by religious licensees, and the rest by a wide range of community organizations, which range the gamut from existing community groups to social justice organizations.
During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, WQRZ-LP was the only station in its area to remain on the air, broadcasting life-saving information during the storm and its aftermath.
However, during the same time period, the FCC only opened that singular LPFM filing window, and the use of FM translators exploded. This resulted in the flooding of the FM dial with thousands of non-local repeater-stations which mopped up spectrum that might have otherwise gone to LPFM stations. Relative to LPFM's birth in the first decade of the 21st century, the proliferation of translators is gigantic.
In addition, commercial and public broadcasters began a campaign to encourage the adoption of a digital radio broadcast technology called "HD Radio." The FCC sanctioned the use of HD Radio technology in 2002; more than 2,000 stations have adopted the technology, which is filled with technological and economic pitfalls that do not make it a viable option for U.S. radio's digital future.
HD Radio directly effects LPFM stations because it uses more spectrum than an analog FM signal does. As thousands of full-power stations squat on expanded chunks of spectrum, this has the potential to squeeze the future expansion and viability of LPFM. Among LPFM stations, HD Radio is a non-starter.
Meanwhile, microradio operators who opted out of LPFM continue to flourish with abandon.
The number of enforcement actions against pirate stations positively exploded during the first decade of the 21st century. However, after a four-year campaign of heightened (and mostly administrative) enforcement against microradio stations, the FCC's pirate-bust activity began a decline in 2010.
"Typical" stations are now run by individuals or small groups; they serve historically underrepresented and growing immigrant populations; and are not afraid of engaging in forms of commercialism which both supports their operations and their local economy.
Although microradio is no longer organized around a movement paradigm with an explicit political goal, the number of stations on the air now is larger than ever before in U.S. broadcast history.
Established hot-spots, such as southern Florida and the New York, San Francisco, and Boston metropolitan areas, have dozens of pirate stations on the air, and their ranks. By 2010, stations like Mbanna Kantako's Human Rights Radio and Freak Radio Santa Cruz have racked up 15 and 23 years of broadcasts respectively.
In Florida and New Jersey, commercial broadcasters convinced their state legislatures to pass their own laws criminalizing unlicensed broadcasting, but these have proven wholly ineffectual in prodding or assisting the FCC to contain the growth of microbroadcasting.
Microradio stations continue to meet the needs of communities where the limits of LPFM prevent it from doing so, such as those in extreme poverty and dense urban markets. LPFM represents a capstone in the 70-year struggle to legalize real community radio in the United States, but the insatiable and changing demands of the public for access to the airwaves remains.
For more details on the contemporary state of FM radio in the United States see the DIYmedia news archives.