FCC Seal

Under current guidelines it’s tougher for noncommercial stations to move into an urbanized area, a policy that the Federal Communication Commission has just upheld to the chagrin of a West Coast station owner. But it also signaled that it may be willing to rethink the Rural Radio rule if someone gives it the opportunity and files a petition formally asking for a change.

The case that brought about the invitation involved Chehalis Valley Educational Foundation’s religious KACS Chehalis, WA (90.5). In September 2017 the Media Bureau rejected its application to change its city of license to Rainier, WA. That triggered the Rural Radio rule since KACS’ 60dBu contour would cover 53.6% of the Olympia-Lacey, WA market and 13% of Seattle’s urbanized areas. So the Bureau rejected the request.

KACS appealed the decision, saying it was unfair that an educational station’s service be measured using 60dBu signal strength rather than the 70dBu principal community contour that is applicable to commercial FM stations. But the Media Bureau rejected its petition for reconsideration, concluding noncommercial stations actually benefit from greater flexibility when seeking to change their community of license.

But KACS wasn’t ready to admit defeat and it filed an application for review that asked the Commission to review the Media Bureau’s decision. It said the 70dBu contour should be used for all stations, regardless of whether they’re commercial or not. The Commission rejected these arguments and upheld the Bureau decision, only to see KACS then file another appeal asking that it be reconsidered. It argued the current Rural Radio rule makes it more difficult for a noncommercial FM to relocate to a new community of license than is the case for a commercial station.

The FCC last week dismissed the petition in a four-page order that it called it “repetitious” since both the Media Bureau and the Commission considered and rejected the arguments presented by KACS. Instead, the FCC said a request that the policy be changed would be “more appropriately considered in the context of a notice and comment rulemaking in which a wide range of interested parties would be afforded an opportunity to be heard.”

Communications attorney David Oxenford says the current policy has had the effect of freezing competition in urban markets by hampering efforts by new entrants to buy a rural station and move it into an urbanized market. “That is one of the reasons that many advocacy groups for minority ownership have called for the repeal of this policy,” he wrote in a blog post, saying the decision “might just create more supporters for the demise of this policy among noncommercial licensees.”