Federal Changes Could Boost School-Run Radio Stations

By Andrew Trotter — December 07, 2007 3 min read
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Low-power FM radio, which some schools use to connect with their communities and give students hands-on experience in the medium, is getting renewed backing from federal regulators.

Late last month, the Federal Communications Commission adopted several rules and proposed others that it could use to add to the 817 low-power FM licenses now held by such nonprofit organizations as schools, universities, churches, and museums.

Separately, bills in Congress would also ease restrictions that have limited the availability of low-power FM licenses.

As the name implies, low-power FM broadcasting uses the same part of the radio spectrum that “full-service” FM stations use, but with much lower power—from 10 to 100 watts—limiting the broadcast radius to about 10 miles or significantly less, depending on the terrain. The small scale allows use of an inexpensive transmitter and a small antenna, which a school typically places on its roof or flagpole.

That scale is well suited to schools and other community groups that have been awarded the free licenses. Low-power FM stations offer music, news, public-affairs, and sports programming, as well as public-service announcements and emergency notices—usually with a distinctly local flair. (“Voice of Ouray,” June 22, 2005.)

“High schools have done excellent work with low-power FM stations,” said Hannah Sassaman, the program director of the Prometheus Radio Project, a nonprofit group based in Philadelphia that assists the small stations and lobbies in Washington for low-power FM.

She said there is a “huge pent-up demand” for licenses, including 2,400 applications pending before the FCC since 2000.

The nation’s full-service broadcasters, including both commercial and public radio stations, have long fought to restrict the license class, arguing that the signals, if allowed into the tightly packed FM band, would interfere with their broadcasts.

Congress responded in 2000 by curtailing the issuing of low-power FM licenses in most of the nation’s populous areas.

Interference at Issue

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said in a statement the proposed rules would “better promote entry [of new broadcasters] and ensure local responsiveness without harming the interests of full-power FM stations.”

Still, the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents 7,000 radio and TV broadcasters, reiterated its concern about interference after the FCC’s action.

Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the Washington-based NAB, dismissed a two-year, $2 million federal study that in 2003 found that the interference by low-power FM stations was likely to be minimal. “Interference on the radio dial is real,” he said.

The FCC did resolve some of the large broadcasters’ concerns by clarifying that low-power FM stations must be locally owned with locally originated programming and with ownership limited to one station per license, an NAB statement said.

But the FCC tentatively concluded that when a full-service station takes over the bandwidth of a low-power station, the former must help the latter move to a new spot on the dial.

The agency also tentatively concluded that the low-power stations should be able to take broadcast frequencies closer to those of neighboring stations, if there is no evidence of interference. Such a recommendation would have to be enacted by Congress, though.

The FCC rules, issued Nov. 27, also aim to prevent local low-power FM stations from being displaced by “translator” stations, which repeat programming that originated farther away using the same bandwidth as the low-power stations.

The full details of the FCC action have not been released but are expected soon.

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