The FCC has asked for comments on a rulemaking proposal that would fundamentally change the way in which LPFM stations operate – proposing that they be allowed to take commercial messages (as opposed to the current limit the they operate noncommercially, only taking underwriting announcements and other noncommercial sponsorships), allowing them to be owned by local small businesses (as opposed to the current rule that limit their ownership to nonprofit organizations), and giving them primary status (protecting them against being displaced by a subsequent move of a full-power station or the initiation of service by a new full-power FM station). The proposal also asks that the limits on ownership, which currently limit most nonprofit groups to ownership of a single LPFM, be lifted. There is also a suggestion that LPFM stations be governed by the same spacing rules that apply to FM translators, letting them locate wherever there is no predicted interference, not limiting them to locations where they meet mileage separation requirements set out by the current rules. This is a new proposal, going beyond the proposal we wrote about here to allow LPFM stations to increase power to 250 watts, on which the FCC recently took comments.

Comments on this proposal are due on August 30. The proposal is not a proposal by the FCC to adopt rules on these matters, but instead just a preliminary notice that the petition asking for these changes to the rules was filed, and asking for public comment as to whether the FCC should take any action and further pursue the proposals being made. Obviously, some broadcasters may want to comment on this proposal which would fundamentally change the nature of the LPFM service.The proposal would create a new type of LPFM service – allowing such stations to be more closely spaced to full-power stations than is now possible, and eliminating their status as secondary stations by giving them protections against new FM stations and upgrades of existing stations. Allowing commercial operations would also be a big change from the noncommercial operations that have thus far been allowed. The proponent of the rulemaking says that these changes are necessary as many LPFM stations have had great difficulties in staying in operation on a noncommercial basis, with low funding levels and with the fear of being displaced by full-power stations. Full-power broadcasters would say that the LPFM service was never intended to provide another commercial outlet, but was instead intended to allow community groups to have a voice. Moving to a protected commercial service would just create more interference on the FM band, and small low power stations are unlikely to be significantly more viable operating commercially than they are now in the very competitive radio market.

While the FCC may well decide on its own not to do anything with this controversial proposal, broadcasters may nevertheless wish to file their comments on the proposal by the August 30 deadline.