The FCC is scheduled to vote on controversial new rules that would potentially end a prohibition on low-power FM stations using directional antennas, among other things. At its April Open Commission Meeting, the agency will vote on a Report and Order to update its technical rules for LPFM stations.
Since the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 was passed nearly a decade ago, the number of LPFMs has grown to more than 2,100 stations. The LPFM service has “matured since engineering requirements were first established in 2000,” FCC Chair Ajit Pai said in a blog post announcing the April meeting agenda. “This maturation means that LPFM stations should be able to take advantage of additional engineering options to improve reception.”
In addition to improving reception, the proposed new rules would “increase flexibility while maintaining interference protection and the core LPFM goals of diversity and localism,” Pai said.
Along with expanded LPFM use of directional antennas, the proposal would allow LPFM stations to use FM booster stations.
In July 2019, the FCC advanced a 14-page Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (MB Docket Nos. 19-193) that would permit LPFMs to use both methods to improve reception. The proposal received a cold reception from commercial broadcasters concerned that it could also open the door to more interference. “Regardless of which safeguards the Commission adopts,” the National Association of Broadcasters said in July, “it is doubtful at best whether LPFM operators could, or would, implement the precautions needed to use directional antennas in a way that protects full-service FM stations from interference.”
In dial-crammed markets like New York, Philadelphia and its New Jersey suburbs, the idea raises considerable questions about potential inference headaches, the New Jersey Broadcasters Association said when the Notice was first issued. “The very essence of the noncommercial nature of the LPFM service calls into question LPFM licensee’s ability to create, monitor and maintain such equipment,” it told the FCC. In addition to similar technical worries, NJBA also believes the very idea of allowing directional antennas goes against everything LPFMs are about. It said those stations are designed to reach smaller, community-oriented audiences in highly localized areas rather than going after the biggest audience possible.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic underscoring the need to dispense vital information to the public, the Commission has picked what may be an opportune time to push the new rule across the finish line. “During this difficult time, broadcasters of all sizes have been critical in providing their communities with up-to-date information, and LPFM stations have certainly done their part,” Pai said. The chairman called out WNQZ-LP New Orleans, which has aired locally produced PSAs and WOMP-LP Cambridge, OH, which has been carrying local church services, “serving the elderly and low-income Americans who are particularly isolated and lack access to streaming services.” And KDRT-LP Davis, CA which Pai says filled a void to serve its community after the local college radio station was forced off the air by the coronavirus outbreak. “These are just a few examples of how the LPFM service has risen to the challenge presented by COVID-19,” Pai said.