How do I start a new LPFM station?
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.
In 2017 and 2018, the FCC has had filing windows for new FM translators to be owned and operated by existing licensed AM broadcast stations to add lower-powered FM signals. There were over 2,000 new permits granted. Not only does this reduce the number of opportunities for new LPFM stations, especially in urban areas, the FCC also needs to process these applications before any other filing windows can take place. There are also other broadcast interests who may be waiting for filing windows that the FCC may want to get to for LPFM.
There are currently two Notices of Proposed Rulemaking, MB Docket 19-3 proposes administrative changes to the LPFM and non-commercial full-power radio services and MB Docket 19-193 proposes technical changes to the LPFM service. These two dockets are writing on the wall of possible future filing windows. The first window will likely be for new noncommercial full power stations in the 88~92 MHz band and then LPFM will eventually follow that. The FCC is also proposing to make some changes to the public notice rules which would impact all applicants for new stations. There will also likely be a change in the system used by the FCC to file applications. There is also a plan to discontinue analog low power television broadcasting by July, 2021. All of these things could have an impact on the window. The window for new full-power noncommercial educational stations may be as soon as 2020, but it could be any time after that. The LPFM window will likely happen in 2022 or 2023.
What can an organization do right now?
Entities applying for LPFM stations should be existing organizations that are engaged in other community services and wish to use radio as an extension to their educational program. If you are wanting to run a station as a business to make money (e.g. make a profit), have no desire to truly serve the community (i.e. use the station as a personal jukebox) or just run the station as a weekend hobby, LPFM IS NOT (repeat NOT) the appropriate service for you. 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. Your board members should have no felony convictions, at least 80% of them being citizens of the United States and no board member can be currently on a denial of federal benefits under the U.S. Anti Drug Act (the same law that prevents those with certain drug convictions from getting student loans). The organization must be recognized as a non-profit corporation by a state government (preferably the state the station is in) and the use of so-called "unincorporated associations" is discouraged as most applications from those types of organizations fail. Board members should reside within 20 miles of the proposed transmitter site (10 miles in the top 50 markets) and the organization should 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 (based 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 or by using a streaming provider that packages these services together.. 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. 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.
If you are in an urban area, it is very unlikely that a channel will be available due to the 2016, 2017 and 2018 filing activities by FM translators. Also realize, that if there are channels available at a particular location that are "second-adjacent waiver" 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. Remember, because you can't profit from LPFM, don't expect to recoup these costs from just underwriting. There is a huge amount of community support and fundraising that is necessary to make one of these stations. Just be ready to handle the big numbers if your application is successful.
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. Also, you may want to call the FCC's call center at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) and let them know you are interested in starting an LPFM station in your area. The call center agents do log those calls. We must continue to show community need for new stations.
Thank you for your interest in LPFM. We hope to hear you on the air someday!