New unity on community radio translator debate; LPFM still 'troubling' to NPR

by Todd Urick, Common Frequency

In a rare instance of unity, religious broadcast network Educational Media Foundation (EMF) and grassroots radio advocate Prometheus Radio Project have found common ground regarding the future of Low Power FM (LPFM) and translators. Over the past decade, Prometheus and EMF, the owner of the nationwide KLOVE/AIR 1 FM network, have held opposing views regarding the remaining available radio spectrum. Now for the first time, the organizations have come together on a mutually beneficial policy proposal, submitted to the FCC as a Memorandum of Agreement.

The debate over the last seven years has focused mainly on what to do with thousands of pending translator applications submitted within a single FCC filing window in 2003. If granted these translators, held primarily by religious satellite networks, would occupy the last viable channels in urban areas across the United States which could be licensed by any lower power service. Due to the public outcry over remote satellite networks attempting to occupy these vacant channels, coupled with the insufficient number of LPFM opportunities, the FCC intended to impose a ten application cap per organization to the remaining pending applications. This sounded good to LPFM proponents and bad for the translator megafilers in theory, but upon further analysis it looked bad for both parties.

Under a ten-application translator cap, translator applicants would get to choose which applications they want the FCC to process. Applicants would be likely choose the most coveted frequencies in urban areas. All the coveted channels would then go to translator owners, and very few urban channels would be left for LPFM. However, the megafilers would then have all their hundreds of pending translators dwindle down to ten, and would additionally have to argue over proposals such as service-type pecking order (translators and LPFM are similarly not primary service licenses) and ownership limits. In addition, megafilers holding non-commercial educational translator applications would lose the most within mutually exclusive (MX) filing situations because applicants vying for the same channel will go to auction among the commercial prospectors only (excluding the non-commercial applicants within the MX group). LPFM service-type pecking order and translator ownership limits are important, so some type of compromise needed to be reached or both non-com megacasters and LPFM advocates might have walked away from the table without getting what they wanted.

The most creative point in the Prometheus-EMF agreement lifts the proposed ten application processing limit, but allows an LPFM filing window to take place while the translator applications are pending. LPFM would get first pick of the of channels over the pending translators within the window. Outside of the windows, processing of all the remaining translator applications not in conflict with LPFM applications would continue to be processed. Concessions appear to have been made on both sides to allow for mutual benefit.

Radio Assist Ministry--possibly the largest of the translator mega-filers that resells granted translators to Christian ministries as a non-com money-making operation--filed a comment agreeing with the Memorandum for the most part. The question was, how would NPR react to the Memorandum? On August 10, NPR expressed their opinion to the FCC. To both sides' dismay, NPR found the ideas expressed in the memo "troubling":

"The premise that low power origination services are generally better than retransmission services may or may not be valid in individual cases or given the mature state of the FM band, and the Parties have not presented any empirical basis to justify reprioritizing LPFM and FM translator service." - NPR

Once again, Public Radio appears to be siding against proliferation of LPFM. (See more on NPR's rocky relationship with microradio HERE.) NPR has even less to worry about their actual stations being technically impacted by LPFM because NPR channels primarily reside in the NCE band (88.1- 91.9 FM), and LPFM resides in the commercial band (92.1 - 107.9 FM). Perhaps since LPFM is a non-commercial service, NPR advisors are worried about a future when more towns have multiple public radio service providers. If this is the case, it would be unfortunate for our nation's public radio service to sell out the possibility of new localized low power FM services in order to maintain the financial durability of public radio monopolies with massive geographical reach.

article originally published at Common Frequency.

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