In what is being billed as a “proposal for small town America,” low-power FM advocate REC Networks has turned its attention to full-power noncommercial FMs. It has filed a rulemaking petition with the Federal Communications Commission calling for more “fair and equitable distribution” in how noncommercial FMs are distributed to smaller cities. REC is asking the FCC to either adopt new rules or create a waiver process that would make it easier to sign on noncommercial stations in rural and suburban communities outside the top 50 markets. Founder Michelle Bradley says under the current rules, those markets have been excluded from having a community voice because of the unavailability of channels caused by noncommercial FM stations serving urbanized areas.
Bradley says she’s aware of 2,559 cities and towns beyond the top 50 metros that have no commercial AM or FM station or noncommercial FM. Many areas also cannot have a low-power FM because of the minimum distance separation requirements that are included in the federal law that opted for distance separation instead of contour overlap when determining where LPFMs could go. In each of those communities, a noncommercial station would be allowed in the reserved band (88.1 FM to 91.9 FM) if the protected contours of second- and third-adjacent channel stations were not taken into consideration. “Because of the historic methods of handling the assignment of new full-service stations in the reserved band, which favored ‘bigger’ facilities over localized ones, many rural areas have been left out in the cold,” Bradley writes in the petition.
Bradley says many of the communities have channels available because of “weaker” second-adjacent channel stations coming in from the urbanized areas. But she also acknowledges those channels would be “nearly impossible” to use without causing “some kind of ‘interference’ to nearby residents.” That’s the sort of interference that under the Local Community Radio Act, the FCC is prohibited from allowing even a LPFM station. Yet Bradley contends the second- and third-adjacent overlap between smaller facilities and big city FMs are a “technical myth” and “have already been debunked” by more than a decade of LPFM experiences. She also argues that with the advances in receiver technology, the radio industry has reached a point where the FCC needs to “relook at second and third-adjacent channel protection requirements from both a technical aspect and from the aspect of fair distribution of radio channels among the states.”
To pave the way for more noncommercial stations, REC proposes when the FCC launches its next filing window that either a regulation or a policy be put in place that would permit small communities that are qualified for allotment purposes to be able to waive second- and/or third- adjacent channel protections—even if the overlap includes a small population that would face interference issues.
In order to address that complication, Bradley says the FCC could create “a very strict set of guidelines” that would be based on showing how allowing such interference would be in the public interest. “This ability would open new doors for schools, nonprofit organizations, smaller local churches and ministries to provide a viable broadcast service to their community and as important, the first service to their local community,” she tells the FCC.
REC’s proposal comes even as the FCC reports a record number of FMs on the air, including noncommercial stations. The FCC says there were 6,726 full-power commercial FMs licensed as of June 30. And the quarterly census also shows a record 4,179 noncommercial FMs are currently licensed to operate. That’s about a thousand more noncommercial FMs than were licensed a decade ago.