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FCC's New Rules Governing Low-Power FM 'Fundamentally Unfair'

Local Matters


Published December 26, 2007 at 12:25 p.m.

BURLINGTON - Nearly eight years after opening his downtown Burlington coffeehouse, Radio Bean owner Lee Anderson finally has a broadcast license to legitimize the word "radio" in its name. About two months ago, WOMM-LP, better known to local radio heads as "The Radiator," began broadcasting 100 watts of locally produced content at 105.9 FM. It's one of the only so-called "LPFMs" that have been licensed in Vermont, and the only one on the air in Burlington.

Unlike unlicensed or "pirate" stations, LPFMs are a class of small, noncommercial radio stations established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2000 to allow community groups, schools, religious and educational organizations to broadcast up to 100 watts, which can serve approximately a 5-mile radius. In an effort to foster local media ownership and more on-air diversity, the FCC only licenses groups that are headquartered within 10 miles of the station they seek to operate.

The Radiator, which broadcasts from a studio in the Big Heavy World headquarters on College Street, has an impressive range. According to Anderson, the station reaches all over Burlington and Winooski, and can be heard as far away as Ferrisburgh, Malletts Bay and even across Lake Champlain.

Burlington's first low-power station has another advantage: It's spared many of the challenges facing low-power stations in larger markets. On December 11, the FCC issued new rules governing LPFM licenses in an effort to ease some of the conflicts that have arisen between the little guys and their much larger neighbors on the FM dial. And those rules could push some LPFMs off the dial?

"Pete tri Dish" is an activist with the Prometheus Radio Project, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that's helped dozens of citizen groups set up community radio outlets around the country. He likened the new ruling to "a bizarre Jenga game," particularly on the issue of "frequency displacement;" that is, the practice of moving LPFMs from one spot of the dial to another in order to reduce signal interference for larger broadcasters.

According to tri Dish, there are about 809 legitimate LPFMs now operating across the United States. For about 150 of them, larger stations have taken over an adjacent frequency, causing the LPFM so much interference that it lost most of its coverage. For about 40 of those small stations, the larger one moved so close that the FCC ordered the LPFM to shut down entirely. The new rules leave open the possibility that some of those stations might apply for a new frequency - assuming one is available, which often isn't the case in large media markets.

There were some good things about the recent decision, too, tri Dish notes. The FCC took steps to correct some minor housecleaning issues and mandated that LPFM owners may only operate one station at a time. In other parts of the country, national religious broadcasters had sought to gobble up all local LPFMs, which is now prohibited. "We're a lot better off than we were a month ago," tri Dish adds. "But in some ways, the fundamental unfairness of it all wasn't really fixed."