How do I start my own LPFM station?
At this time, we must regretfully say, the answer is that you can't.
The FCC designates "windows" of opportunity when they will accept applications for new LPFM stations. In the past, there was a series of windows in 2000 and 2001 based on state and then a nationwide window in 2013. The long delay between 2001 and 2013 was caused by a series of events including a massive number of applications filed in 2003 for FM translators (relay stations) as well as rule changes to implement the passing of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 (LCRA) which was signed by President Obama in January 2011.
As of June, 2016, the FCC has completed processing of most of the 2,800 applications filed in the 2013 filing window. A majority of the remaining applications are questionable in nature as they were filed by the same person in what can be seen as an effort to game the rules. It is our belief that all LPFM applications will be processed by the end of 2016.
In 2016, the FCC has also provided a unique opportunity for AM broadcast stations to be able to obtain an existing FM translator station and be able to move it up to 250 miles into their community in order to provide the AM station with an additional FM version of their station in order to address the problems with noise, interference and lack of coverage which AM radio faces, especially at night. This opportunity will run through the end of October.
In 2017, the FCC is going to open a filing window for new FM translator windows. At this time, this window will be limited to the licensees of AM broadcast stations only. REC has challenged this decision as we feel that limiting the window to only AM licensees violates the LCRA which states that translator and LPFM licenses are given by community need. We feel there is a community need for existing LPFM stations to obtain FM translators where they are needed. Even with that, it will not open an opportunity for new LPFM stations.
There are currently two LPFM-related petitions for rulemaking. The REC sponsored petition, RM-11749 is a straightforward proposal that will provide at least half of the existing LPFM stations the opportunity to upgrade from 100 watts at 30 meters HAAT to 250 watts at 30 meters HAAT (LP-250). A much more controversial petition, RM-11753 would allow for commercial interests to operate LPFM stations and would redefine how LPFM stations protect other stations. If the FCC desires to consider these petitions for rulemaking, there would need to be a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). The NPRM process can take about a year to go through the entire cycle. While RM-11749 was geared towards existing stations and would have no impact on a window for new stations, RM-11753 proposes to completely redefine the LPFM service and it could result in delays. There are also rogue groups that claim to support LPFM who wish to insert their own agenda that could further delay progress towards another LPFM window. LP-250 would have been approved in 2012 if it wasn't for these rogue groups.
We also note that in addition to the AM Revitalization effort we talk about above, the other major FCC priority right now is the repacking of television channels and the reallocation of a significant portion of television spectrum to wireless broadband services. These efforts are taking most of the resources at the FCC Media Bureau right now.
REC feels that the dust may start clearing about 2019 or 2020 after these efforts have completed and if the FCC decides on moving on RM-11749 to upgrade existing LPFM stations. Even then, there may be other groups wanting a piece of the FCC's time. For example, we have not had a filing window for new non-commercial full power stations since 2010. Based on the outcome of the overall AM Revitalization proceeding, there may be an open or restricted filing window for AM broadcast facilities.
Even before there is another LPFM window, REC supports efforts to strengthen the standards of eligibility for licensing as a result of many events that took place during the 2013 LPFM window. Any rulemaking proceeding related to that would also delay another LPFM window.
What can an organization do right now?
First, and most importantly, please stay in the mindset that any hope for an LPFM filing window in 2019 or 2020 is purely speculation and it may never happen despite how much REC is pushing the issue with the FCC.
Organizations applying for LPFM stations should be existing organizations, especially those that have been just established just for operating the station. Organizations should have a board of directors consisting of multiple members who help govern the station. Board members can not have an ownership stake in other radio or TV stations or a daily newspaper and board members should not have any history of unlcensed (pirate) broadcasting, especially if the FCC has issued a notice of unlicensed operation. Board members should reside within 20 miles of the proposed transmitter site (10 miles in the top 50 markets) and have a headquarters within the same radius (current rules require either 75% of the board or the headquarters within the 20/10 mile radius). Organizations should be prepared to provide 8 hours of local programming per day and be able to staff a main studio for up to 20 hours per week (bsaed on the outcome of the LPFM window, stations may be subject to these additional rules).
If the rules for points do not change (and we are not proposing to change them), the FCC will give priority to organizations that have been established and in the community for a minimum of two years prior to filing the application during a filing window. This means being established as a non-profit corporation at the state level (preferably in your own or adjacent state) for a minimum of two years. Your corporate status should remain active prior to, during and following the filing window. This means filing any state required annual reports and paying any necessary fees to the state corporation commission to keep your status active. Please note, the FCC frowns highly on so-called "unincorporated associations" and in order to obtain a license as an unincorporated association, there is a substantial burden of demonstrating that your organization was active prior to the filing window, even more of a burden if you are claiming the points for two years local presence. Do the right thing, file with the state.
You may want to consider streaming an internet station. This will require licensing through SoundExchange as well as the performing rights organizations ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. Not only will this get your organization an established voice in the world, it will be great training for that day you may be able to get a signal over the air. There are also companies like StreamLicensing that can assist with getting you through the licensing process and get you online. However, if you have the resources and plan to have the listeners, you are better off dealing with the licensing organizations directly and obtaining a streaming server from another provider.
If you are in an urban area, it is very unlikely that a channel will be available due to the 2016 and 2017 filing activities by FM translators. Periodically check myLPFM for updates. Also realize, that if there are channels available at a particular location that are "second-adjacent waiver" (yellow) channels, there may be specific antenna height and type requirements that will make things more costly and in some cases may not meet zoning and land-use restrictions in your community.
Where it comes to LPFM, be prepared for sticker shock. It is not as simple as connecting an antenna to a transmitter and going on the air. LPFM stations are required to have specific LPFM certified transmitters as well as additional equipment such as emergency alert system (EAS) decoders. You must also factor in the cost of the antenna which can get costly if you are having to protect a second-adjacent channel station. LPFM applicants planning to use a commercial tower site such as those offered by American Tower and SBA should be prepared for many up-front costs including advance payment of rent, insurance, site surveys, tower climbers (from their preferred list) and potentially the costs of installing cabinets, racks or bringing internet or electricity to your equipment. Even for the most basic LPFM configuration using your own site, you should plan a minimum of $25,000 even though some may claim you can do it for much less. Just be ready.
The FCC will announce when a window will open. Again, it may not be for a few more years before another opportunity opens. For now, you can contact your elected representatives at the federal level (Senate and Congress) to keep the pressure on the FCC to work towards another LPFM window in our lifetime.
Thank you for your interest in LPFM. We hope to hear you on the air someday!