55 Days and Counting: Informative Events for LPFM Applicants

The Federal Communications Commission is busy preparing for an onslaught of applications for new low-power FM (LPFM) stations: the filing window opens on October 15th and closes on the 29th. Interested applicants should already be hard at work preparing, because building a radio station from scratch is not a simple process.

But there have been and will be some important info-dumps that can help demystify the issues. In chronological order:

1. WGXC’s "Saturday Afternoon Show" on LPFM. On Saturday, August 17, community radio station WGXC (Hudson/Catskill/Acra, NY) aired a two-hour special on LPFM, which included interviews with FCC officials, aspiring LPFM applicants and active stations, and lots of context about how the LPFM service came about and what its future may hold.

2. FCC LPFM Webinar. On Tuesday, August 20, the FCC held an online gathering to explain the LPFM service and the steps required to apply for a new station. This webinar has been archived here—the agency plans to hold another one in early October.

3. Radio Survivor Twitter Chat. Tomorrow (Thursday, August 22) the principals behind Radio Survivor will facilitate a discussion on Twitter about the coming LPFM filing window. It’ll be focused on how colleges and other student/school organizations can take advantage of the LPFM opportunity, but it’s open for anyone to participate. The fun begins at 10 AM Pacific time. Follow the hashtag #LPFM for all the action (or to peruse the discussion after the fact).

4. Prometheus Radio Project Webinars. The fine folks at the Prometheus Radio Project have scheduled a series of webinars over the next month covering many aspects of building an LPFM station, from the application process itself to finding a transmitter-site to producing and acquiring programming (and much more). These webinars will be archived as well.

5. Common Frequency Webinar. Common Frequency, a non-profit facilitator of community radio projects since 2006, is also hosting a webinar on the LPFM application process. It takes place next Wednesday, August 28th starting at 1 PM (Eastern time) and (free) registration is required to participate. Visit Common Frequency’s companion-site, LPFM Now! for more details on the application process and how they might be able to help you.
Ten years ago—during the first LPFM filing window—there was but a fraction of this kind of support available to community groups looking for bona-fide public access to the airwaves. As a result, nearly half of all LPFM licenses went to well-prepared churches and other religious groups more interested in proselytizing than empowerment. These sorts of resources will hopefully make for a more balanced distribution this time around.

The Health of Radio: By the Numbers

With what seems like increasing frequency, media-pundits are dropping rhetorical bombs riffing on the notion that radio is dying. This inevitably sets off a tizzy within the radio industry itself. But there are still strong signs of life, especially if one steps back and looks at the big picture.

stationtotalssmEvery quarter, the Federal Communications Commission issues a report on the number of licensed broadcast radio stations in the United States. The graph at right compiles the last 21 years of these reports (from 1992 to 2013). Clicking on the graph will spawn a new window showing a larger, more detailed version.

These FCC reports are available here. I used the agency’s mid-year totals, released every June 30th, for year-to-year consistency. (2000 and 2007 are asterisked because there was no June 30th report archived for those years; these figures come from the FCC’s third quarter (September 30th) report.)

Although the oldest available report is from 1968, there are no archived totals covering 1971 to 1989. I started with 1992 because that’s the first year for which June 30th reports are available.

The numbers speak for themselves: more than 9,000 new radio stations took to the air over the last 21 years. This includes 1,923 new full-power commercial FM stations and 2,409 full-power noncommercial FM stations.

Only two classes of radio station exhibit any decline: AM and LPFM stations. On the AM side, there’s been a net loss of 237 AM stations (about 5%) over the last 21 years. Note that this has not been a consistently downward trend, either, with small upticks around the turn of the century, most likely due to the FCC’s expansion of the AM band in the 1990s.

Because the FCC’s broadcast station totals only count fully-licensed stations (not stations under construction), LPFM stations don’t appear on the books until 2005. The number of licensed LPFMs peaked at 864 in 2010 and has fallen to 797 this year (a decline of about 8%). With the coming of a new LPFM filing window this fall, there will be a surge in the number of these stations over the next few years.

What’s most remarkable is the growth of FM translator and booster stations. The majority of these stations are translators, and you can see how they exploded following the Great Translator Invasion a decade ago—nearly reaching numerical parity with commercial FM stations in the 2008-09 time frame. Although their numbers have dwindled (by about 100) since then, more than 1,000 new translator construction permits will be issued soon, so expect a positive swing in this trajectory as well.

It’s also quite illustrative of the extremely vibrant marketplace for FM translators that now exists. A cursory overview of just those transactions noted in Tom Taylor’s daily industry newsletter over the last month alone turns up some 20 translators that changed hands in 12 states for nearly $2 million—or an average of $99,914 per station. The actual sale price of stations ranged from $17,000 (for a 250-watt translator in Iowa) to $350,000 (for a 225-watt translator in Florida). Of the 17 transactions covering these translators, six of them were for more than $100,000, and all but five of them were for more than $50,000.

The fact that the net number of radio stations continues to rise—and in the case of FM translators, so much money is chasing so few watts—does seem to suggest that the demise of radio is grossly exaggerated. That said, it doesn’t mean that concerns about the medium’s future have no merit. In concrete terms, the inherent value of legacy radio broadcasting lies in the spectrum it occupies, and with a growing hunger for wireless broadband there is the possibility that in the future, radio might very well abdicate its exclusive patch of the airwaves.

In 2011, Radio World asked National Association of Broadcasters president Gordon Smith whether there was "any immediate threat" to the radio spectrum; he replied, "Not immediate, but if they can do it to your neighbor [broadcast TV], they can do it to you eventually." A straight-up cynic might see the growth of radio as claim-staking for this eventuality, but there’s still too much money to be made in the status quo…even if it may very well not be inherently sustainable.

Date Set for LPFM’s Second Coming

Mark your calendars: the FCC has scheduled a two-week filing window for LPFM station licenses to begin on October 15, 2013. More than a decade since the first (and only) LPFM filing window, this may very well be the last chance to build a wave of new community radio stations in the United States.

The application process is not simple, and there are 130 days to master it. It is crunch-time.

The best place to look for LPFM channel availability is via REC Networks’ myLPFM channel search, which allows for both general and specific queries, as well as an impressive array of tools by which to massage the channel-hunting data.

The Prometheus Radio Project has committed to providing "intensive support" to 60 groups around the country "to ensure that their application is the best it can be and that their station will be both viable and sustainable for lasting community impact." They estimate this effort will cost $120,000 (or $2,000 per group).

Prometheus is also producing regular webinars that explain the basics of starting an LPFM station and is staffing a phone help desk for potential applicants. All of this is on top of the extensive online resources they already offer.

Broadcast attorney David Oxenford notes that "Groups thinking about opportunities in [large] markets need to be prepared to face competition for the few channels that may be available and to be realistic – as there will be many places where no channels will be available to serve a particular part of a metropolitan area." That said, the filing window is expected to attract thousands of applications for more than 1,000 stations.

Due to the expected crush of applicants, fellow D.C. counsel Harry Cole cautions that the FCC plans to dismiss LPFM applications that are not "letter perfect" en masse; those that are "incomplete" or "patently defective" will be tossed out as soon as the filing window closes on October 29th. So make sure to get the application right the first time – or file early enough in the window so that you can make amendments before it closes.

The last time around, more than 1,300 LPFM station licenses were granted, of which some 40% were subsequently cancelled or expired, leaving just shy of 800 on the air. This window will be much bigger – and with nearly 15 years of effort culminating in this opportunity, hopes are very high.

Clear Channel: Give Us More Translators Before Expanding LPFM

Kudos to Matthew Lasar for unearthing an ex parte gem from the FCC files. Clear Channel’s top engineering executive and chief lobbyist had a sit-down with FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai earlier this month in which they covered a wide range of issues related to the state of AM broadcasting. Pai is pushing for an "AM Revitalization Initiative" at the FCC, which would consider several ideas related to finding sustainability for the nation’s oldest broadcast band.

On the notion of an all-digital AM transition, Clear Channel’s Jeff Littlejohn – who is also a member of iBiquity Digital Corporation’s Board of Directors – was not enthusiastic, calling it "challenging" to set a date for an analog/digital switchover given the lack of listener enthusiasm for HD Radio and the massive amount of money it would cost all broadcasters to adopt the technology.

However, Clear Channel’s stated position on AM’s "migration" to FM is of greater concern. Clear Channel supports the idea of re-appropriating analog TV channels 5 and 6 for FM broadcasting, which would provide an opportunity for AM stations to exchange their licenses for FM ones. In the interim,

Mr. Littlejohn noted Clear Channel’s endorsement of opportunities for AM stations to apply for new FM translators, both during an AM licensee-only filing window prior to an LPFM window and on an on-going basis…as AM stations transition to digital broadcasts and/or other spectrum.

It’s unseemly for a company the likes of Clear Channel, which already owns 850 full-power radio stations, to ask for another bite at what FM spectrum remains before LPFM gets a chance to expand – an struggle that took 10 years to achieve. The company’s already amassed several dozen translators under its belt over the last decade.

LPFM proponents would be wise to keep a wary eye on the FCC between now and October, when the next LPFM filing window is expected to open.

In an interview with Radio Ink last month, Pai said the timeline for actually making his AM initiative happen may be slipping. "Being the currently junior-most Commissioner at the FCC, I don’t get to set the agenda….In the meantime, the best we can do is try to persuade our colleagues to keep working with folks on the outside." With only three sitting Commissioners at present, there’s little chance of anything substantive taking place until those open seats are filled, which is expected to happen later this summer.

Boston Radio Pirate Runs for Mayor

The city of Boston, Massachusetts is gearing up for a mayoral election later this year, and among the folks throwing their hat into the ring is Charles Clemons.

A former Boston police and corrections officer, Clemons may be better known as the founder of Touch 106 FM, a microradio outlet busted by the FCC in 2007-08. Clemons received a $17,000 forfeiture for unlicensed broadcasting and refusing to allow FCC agents to inspect the station.

Following the FCC action, Clemons walked from Boston to Washington, D.C. to lobby for the Local Community Radio Act, which opened the door to an expansion of LPFM (though it still bars pirate broadcasters from a path to legality).

Despite the fine, Touch FM remains on the air today. There is no indication that Clemons has appealed or paid the fine…nor any evidence that the FCC is pursuing collection.

Clemons doesn’t have much of a platform as of yet, and by all accounts he’s a long-shot candidate. It will be interesting to see whether Touch FM takes a position in the race: FCC rules prohibit broadcasters from officially endorsing a particular candidate, but considering that Touch operates without a license, there’s no reason for it to abide by such content-based regulation.