Introduction to LPFM
Updated December 17, 2023.
Up until the late 1970's, the FCC licensed very low power non-commercial broadcast stations. These "Class-D" stations were licensed to high schools and smaller colleges. These stations were used for the education of students in radio as well as offering diverse programming to the communities they serve. In the late 70's, at the hands of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the bigger college radio station interests, these Class-D stations were considered not efficient use of spectrum and the FCC declared them secondary. They can exist as long as the channel was not needed for a full power station.
In the 80's the FCC created some rules that created several new classes of FM stations. This resulted in a substantial increase in the number of commercial FM broadcast stations across the country.
In the mid 90's, Congress passes the Telecommunications Act. Portions of this legislation substantially lifts the media ownership rules and would allow for corporations to own a large number of radio and TV stations.
As corporations such as iHeart Media (formerly Clear Channel) continued to absorb more and more stations, more trends were seen in radio such as the reduction of local staff, local coverage and in some cases, stations moving from smaller communities to big cities.
As the trend continued, we saw an increase of resentment against Congress and the FCC for allowing this concentration of media to continue. Some in the grassroots resorted to broadcasting without obtaining a license. The flashpoint of the grassroots radio movement was the court challenges made by Stephen Dunifer. Lower courts justified these unlicensed operations.
In the late 90's, three separate petitions were filed with the FCC. One petition was filed by Nickolaus Leggett and Donald Schellhardt. This petition, assigned RM-9208 originally called for a concept of 1 watt microstations operating in a cellular approach. Later on, a second tier of stations with a 5 mile range was proposed. Another petition was filed by Rodger Skinner, assigned RM-9242 called for a mix of commercial primary stations up to 3,000 watts, secondary stations up to 50 watts and special event stations up to 20 watts. A third petition, RM-9246 was filed by WebSports and called for low power special event and venue broadcast stations in the AM and FM bands. (We also note, in 1999, the National Hockey League also filed a petition for an in-stadium broadcast service, RM-9682).
On February 3, 1999, the FCC started the next part of the process by issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to create a new low power radio service. In the FCC's proposal, a primary 1,000 watt service, a secondary 100 watt service and a secondary 10 watt "microradio" service. Thousands of comments were received both in favor or against various portions of the proposal or the entire concept of LPFM.
On January 27, 2000, the FCC issues their Report and Order establishing a low power FM (LPFM) radio service. The FCC establishes two classes of stations, 100 and 10 watt. The 1,000 watt class was eliminated. LPFM stations were classified as non-commercial educational meaning they could only be licensed to educational and non-profit organizations. Individuals and commercial entities could not be the licensee of an LPFM station. The FCC put specific rules in place that restricted the number of stations any organization could own as well as give preferental treatment to local applicants. Additional rules were put in place that restricted LPFM licenses from those who were ever been involved in pirate radio. This part of the rules was declared unconstitutional in 2002.
On May 30, 2000, the first of 5 LPFM filing windows opens for applications. By the summer of 2001, over 3,200 applications were filed.
In April 2001, LPFM was dealt a blow by Congress using a very questionable presentation by the National Association of Broadcasters alleging that LPFM stations will cause excessive interference to incumbent broadcasters and extensive lobbying by the broadcast industry, Congress places additional restrictions on how LPFM stations protect full power stations and FM translators as a rider of a budget appropriations bill for the District of Columbia. Despite research done by LPFM interests as well as the FCC to suggest the contrary, The Radio Broadcast Protection Act prohibits LPFM stations from being on a third adjacent channel (600 kHz) away from other stations. In October 2002, the FCC opens a 3 day filing window for affected applicants to try to find an alternate channel or other arrangement. March 17, 2003 in an event we coined as the "St. Patty's Day Massacre", those applications that were still deadlocked were dismissed.
As a result of the Radio Broadcast Protection Act, the FCC was ordered by Congress to do an independent study of the impacts on third adjacent channel operations by LPFM stations to incumbent broadcasters. The famous MITRE study proved that there is no considerable interference by LPFM stations to full power broadcasters on the third adjacent channel. Despite the NAB's calls for the FCC to conduct a economic impact study, which was also requested by Congress, the FCC presented to Congress the positive outcome of the MITRE report. Community broadacsting legislation is currently pending in both the House and the Senate.
In February 2005, the FCC had a public meeting where many representatives from the LPFM community met with the Commission on the future needs of LPFM stations. In March, a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was issued that resulted in some non-contraversial changes such as the length of time a station can take to build as well as more liberalized rules on how far a station can move to a different location. The FCC accepted comments on various contraversial subjects including the status of LPFM stations to translators. The translator contraversy was sparked by a translator filing window in 2003 (coined "The Great Translator Invasion") where thousands of applications were filed by a small number of speculative applicants who have already trafficked some of the granted permits. The translator filing window has foreclosed on future opportunities for LPFM stations.
Of the 3,200 applications originally filed, just under 1,000 of them were eventually granted by the FCC, over 500 of these stations have completed the process and are fully licensed.
In late December, 2009 as the very last item to be considered before they take their holiday break, the US House of Representatives voted to pass the Local Community Radio Act. The bipartisan supported LCRA would remove the third adjacent channel restrictions imposed by the Radio Broadcast Improvement Act of 2001 in exchange for a proactive interference prevention program which was mutually agreed by interests representing full power radio. In 2010, a revised version of the LCRA was introduced in the 111th Congress. This version passed the House on voice vote.
On December 18, 2010, the Senate adopted the LCRA and was signed by President Obama in January, 2011.
In March, 2012, the FCC reached a monumental decision on how to handle the remaining translator applications that have been on file since 2003. Provisions in the LCRA mandate that spectrum be made available to both translators and LPFM stations. To meet these provisions, the FCC has protected future LPFM opportunities in the urban core areas of over 100 metropolitan markets across the country. To address the translator construction permit trafficking issue, the FCC imposed a "one to a market" application cap for the remaining applications. For a handful of large filers, the FCC has also imposed a nationwide limit of 50 applications. On reconsideration, the FCC imposed a nationwide cap of 70 pending translator applications of which, up to 50 may be within the top 150+ markets. The "one to a market" cap has been expanded to 3 to a market with additional restrictions.
In November, 2012, the FCC finalized the rules that will implement additional aspects of the Local Community Radio Act including the long awaited second adjacent channel waiver rules. In this decision, the FCC eliminated the LP-10 class of service (no stations were ever licensed) and eliminated the concept of doing sequential licenses.
The last LPFM filing window was from October 15 through November 15, 2013. It was extended due to the government shutdown. The filing window attracted about 2,800 applications for new construction permits.
The third generation LPFM filing window was from December 6 through December 15, 2023. This filing window attracted over 1,300 applications for new construction permits.
With the finish of the 2023 LPFM filing window, it may be several years before the next one.