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It’s mostly applause for a proposal floated by the Federal Communications Commission to streamline several of the procedures and processes broadcasters would need to follow when competing for new noncommercial FM and LPFM licenses or undergoing major modifications. While some LPFM advocates say they wish the Commission went further, the comments filed on a pending rulemaking were generally supportive of the agency’s plans.

The Media Bureau has tentatively concluded that some of the points-based comparative procedures currently on the books for dealing with how to resolve competing applications, known in FCC jargon as mutually exclusive applications, are “unnecessarily complex” and have caused headaches for applicants trying to comply with them. There’s also a discrepancy between the rules on the books and the instructions on the related agency forms. The Commission in February advanced a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (MB Docket No 19-3) that would, if approved, make several changes including:

  • Eliminate the current requirement that NCE applicants amend their governing documents to pledge that localism/diversity be maintained in order to receive points as “established local applicants” and for “diversity of ownership”
  • Improve the NCE tie-breaker process and reduce the need for mandatory time-sharing
  • Clarify aspects of the “holding period” rule by which NCE permittees must maintain the characteristics for which they received comparative preferences and points
  • Reclassify as “minor” gradual changes in governing boards with respect to non-stock and membership LPFM and NCE applicants
  • Extend the LPFM construction period from 18 months to three years
  • Allow the assignment/transfer of LPFM construction permits after an 18-month holding period and eliminate the three-year holding period on assigning LPFM licenses.

The Commission said in the proposal that the changes are designed to “improve selection procedures, expedite the initiation of new service to the public, and eliminate unnecessary applicant burdens.”

That’s music to the ears of several low-power advocates. “The proposals in this NPRM are non-controversial in nature and address some of the issues encountered by applicants, grantees, licensees and Bureau staff,” said REC Networks in a filing. But it says it has seen a “considerable number” of false claims of localism in the past and REC questions whether the FCC goes far enough with a proposed new provision explicitly requiring an applicant that receives localism points during the point system analysis to maintain localism for the period from when the construction permit was granted until the station has achieved four years of on-air operations.

“The Commission needs to better enforce the localism rules,” REC says, arguing the reliance of self-certification is one of the “biggest vulnerabilities” in the process. “LPFM has the strictest rules regarding ownership, yet there are no teeth in enforcing those rules, all in the name of simplicity,” REC says. “This is why we must look at documentation requirements in some of our most vulnerable rules and policies.”

A group of low-power FM advocates, Prometheus Radio and Common Frequency, say they too like the direction the FCC is heading. “We agree with the need to reduce administrative burden, and agree that a change is needed,” said the group in a joint filing. But like REC Networks they too believe the FCC needs to do more to ensure localism is a driving factor in who gets a low-power license. “Some LPFM stations are effectively content networks, reproducing streamed programming [but are] compliant with current rules,” they say. The advocates are pushing for new regulations that would ensure an applicant organization is truly active in a community and require them to pledge that the station's programming will serve the local community. The groups also push the FCC to use this rulemaking to extend the current four-year holding period by which an organization must operate an LPFM before handing it off to someone else to 10 years. They say that would do a better job of preventing speculation on the radio dial. And even with the problems with the current system, the low-power advocates say noncommercial stations should face the same requirements as LPFMs.

Pubcasters Say Board Changes Aren’t Major

In a joint filing, NPR and public TV welcomed the initiative to improve the Commission’s comparative selection process, saying they support the proposal. But public radio and TV broadcasters are taking issue with the proposal’s rationale for what constitutes a major or minor amendment to a pending noncommercial station as it relates to changes in governing board membership. It argues changes in the membership of an applicant’s governing board should not result in a “major” amendment to a pending application, including during comparative “point system” proceedings. Pubcasters say the NPRM ignores the reality that board members aren’t owners and aren’t analogous to owners and shouldn’t be treated as such. “It is that mistake—treating [noncommercial station] board members as owners—that leads to the misplaced notion, reflected to at least some degree in the NPRM, that changes in board membership over 50% constitute a transfer of control,” they tell the Commission.

The FCC’s rulemaking brought no feedback from the National Association of Broadcasters or any commercial station owner that wouldn’t directly be impacted by the new rules. That may change in the next round of comments. The FCC has set a June 18 deadline for submission of reply comments in the proceeding.