FM Translators and LPFM

Once upon a time, August was a quiet month in Washington, when everyone went on vacation. Sure, there are plenty of vacations that will happen this coming month, but it seems that regulatory activity no longer takes a break. For example, August 1 is the due date for the filing with the FCC of license renewals for all radio stations (including translators and LPFM stations) in North and South Carolina, and the filing of associated EEO forms for all full power radio stations in those states. With the renewal filing comes the obligation that these stations start airing, on August 1 and August 16, their post-filing announcements informing the public about the submission of the license renewal applications. Radio stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, who filed their renewals on or before June 2, also need to keep running their post-filing announcements on these same dates. Radio stations in Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, who are in the next license renewal group with their renewal applications to be filed by October 1, need to start broadcasting their pre-filing announcements this month, also to run on the 1st and 16th of the month. See our post here on pre-filing announcements.

Commercial and noncommercial full power and Class A Television Stations and AM and FM radio stations in California, Illinois, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Wisconsin that are part of an employment unit with five or more full-time employees must place their annual EEO public inspection file reports in their online public file. Links to those reports should also be placed on the home pages of these station’s websites, if they have a website. The effectiveness of these EEO public file reports, and the EEO programs of which they are a part, are being reviewed by the FCC in a proceeding started by a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking about which we wrote here. Comments on this notice asking for suggestions about how to make the EEO rules more effective are due August 21, with reply comments due by September 5.
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You may remember a few years ago, the FCC cracked down on “serial modifications” of FM translators to move them from rural to more urban areas (see, for instance, the cases about which we wrote here and here), considering such moves an abuse of process.  In a decision released earlier this week, it looks like the FCC’s Audio Division may be backing away from that policy.  In that decision, the FCC approved an application for a move of a translator into Chicago as the 4th hop from the translator’s original site in rural Illinois.

In the old decisions, the FCC had looked at instances where operators tried to move translators to big markets through multiple minor change applications – accomplishing through these “hops” what they normally could not do except during a major change window for translator applications – something that has not happened for since 2003.  These old decisions deemed it an abuse of process to accomplish through multiple steps what an applicant could not do through a single application, especially when the applicant evidenced no intent to serve the public at any of these interim locations.  In these cases, the applicant had often constructed on a temporary basis at a hop location, only to take the translator off the air after just a few days of operation (often dismantling the tower too).  The decision this week looked at a slightly different situation and found that the multiple hops into Chicago were permissible – and set out criteria for determining whether such hops were permissible or not.
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At its open meeting yesterday, the FCC largely adopted the draft order on changes to its processes for resolving complaints about interference from FM translators to existing FM stations. Its final Report and Order adopting the new rules was released after the meeting yesterday. The general guidelines that we detailed in our summary of the draft order were adopted – so that complaints will generally be considered only when they are from within a primary station’s 45 dBu contour (with a potential for consideration of complaints from outside that contour through a waiver process, where the complaining station shows that there is a significant pocket of listeners outside that contour), and only when a threshold number of bona fide listener complaints have been filed.  When a sufficient number of complaints have been filed, the FCC will ask the operator of the translator to either resolve all complaints by resolving the interference complaints of each of the complaining listeners or by working with the operator of the pre-existing station. If no resolution can be worked out, the parties to the dispute are to engage a third party consulting engineer. FCC will make the final determination whether the interference has been resolved based on information provided by the third-party engineer. If the interference is not resolved to the satisfaction of FCC staff, a translator can be ordered off the air.

The biggest change from the draft order is in the number of complaints necessary to sustain a complaint in bigger markets. In the draft order, the Commission proposed that a station with millions of people in its protected service area might need as many as 65 listener complaints to sustain an interference objection. The Order adopted yesterday changed that tentative decision and instead capped the number of listener complaints that were needed to support an interference claim at 25 for stations with over 2 million people in their protected contour. The FCC also made clear that listeners cannot be offered payment or other inducement for submitting a complaint. Finally, the Commission decided that it would resolve all complaints in 90 days unless there was a compelling reason for more time. Once the FCC has determined that an appropriate number of interference complaints have been filed, it will notify the parties of that fact, and provide intermediate deadlines for submission of a remediation plan or other benchmarks as appropriate. If nothing is resolved in 90 days, and there are no unusual circumstances warranting more time, the FCC may order the offending translator off the air at the end of that period.
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With the June 3 filing deadline fast approaching for license renewals for radio stations in Maryland, DC, Virginia and West Virginia, stations (including FM translators and LPFMs) licensed to any community in any of those states should be beginning to prepare their applications. As we wrote here, the FCC forms should be available next week, so once May 1 rolls around, early birds in those states can start to file their renewal applications and the accompanying EEO program report. These stations should also be running their pre-filing license renewal announcements on the 1st and 16th of May. Radio stations in the next renewal group, stations in North and South Carolina, should be prepared to begin their license renewal pre-filing announcements in June – so in May they should be recording and scheduling that announcement to run for the first time on June 1 (see this article on pre-filing announcements for more information).

While May is one of those months with no other regularly scheduled regulatory filing deadlines, it is full of other FCC deadlines including comment dates in several proceedings of importance to broadcasters. In addition, broadcasters in Arizona, Idaho, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia that are part of an Employment Unit with 5 or more full-time employees should also be preparing to add to their online public inspection file their Annual EEO Public File Report – due to be added to their files by June 1.
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The FCC last week released a draft order (available here) in its proceeding looking at revising the procedures to resolve complaints of interference by translators (and certain LPFM stations) to existing FM stations. The draft order proposes many changes to the current process. For the most part, these changes will provide more certainty to translator operators as to whether the new translator they are constructing will be subject to being forced off the air, while making it somewhat more difficult for full-power stations to sustain a claim of interference from new translators. We wrote about the FCC’s initiation of this proceeding here and here.

The headline in many reports about this draft order is the FCC’s tentative decision to allow translators that do cause interference to move to any available FM channel to resolve that interference. In the past, channel moves have been limited to moves to adjacent channels that would be considered a “minor change” by the FCC. In many markets, this will provide the translator operator more opportunities to continue to operate its translator if it does in fact create areas of new interference. Of course, in some spectrum-limited markets, there may not be an alternative channel on which a new translator can be authorized if it has to move off its initial channel (and interference complaints may well be more likely in such spectrum-limited markets as the translator operator may not have had many channels that were clearly free from interference concerns from which to select). But the proposed new rules would also make objections harder to support.
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Questions about regulations from Washington don’t disappear just because you are spending time in Las Vegas, and this week’s NAB Convention brought discussion of many such issues. We’ll write about the discussion of antitrust issues that occurred during several sessions at the Convention in another post. But, today, we will report on news about more imminent actions on other issues pending before the FCC.

In his address to broadcasters at the conference, FCC Chairman Pai announced that the order on resolving translator interference complaints has been written and is now circulating among the Commissioners for review. The order is likely to be adopted at the FCC’s May meeting. We wrote here about the many suggestions on how to resolve complaints from full-power stations about interference from FM translators. While the Chairman did not go into detail on how the matter will be resolved, he did indicate that one proposal was likely to be adopted – that which would allow a translator that is allegedly causing interference to the regularly used signal of a full-power broadcast station to move to any open FM channel to resolve the interference. While that ability to change channels may not resolve all issues, particularly in urban areas where there is little available spectrum, it should be helpful in many other locations.
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As we wrote here, the FCC recently adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to consider changes to its rules dealing with applications for new noncommercial educational stations and LPFM stations. The FCC plans to publish that Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in the Federal Register tomorrow, making comments due May 20, 2019,

The FCC on Friday issued a Public Notice reminding radio stations that the license renewal cycle begins in June, when all stations in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia are due to electronically file their license renewal applications, along with the Broadcast Equal Employment Opportunity Report on Form 396 (the 396 being required of all full-power stations, even those with fewer than 5 full-time employees). It is still unclear whether these applications will be filed using the current electronic database for radio (called CDBS), or whether the FCC will require radio stations to use the new electronic database that TV stations have been using for several years now (called LMS).

The renewal filing obligation applies to LPFMs and FM translator stations, as well as full-power stations. As we have written many times in recent months (for example here and here), after the June filing deadline for these Mid-Atlantic states, the renewal cycle moves south – with stations in the Carolinas filing by August 1. Every other month for the next 3 years, radio stations in other states will file their renewal applications. The order in which stations file is available on the FCC’s website, here. The TV renewal cycle starts one year later, beginning in June 2020.
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The FCC at its meeting yesterday adopted the two broadcast items that it was expected to consider (see our article on the agenda here) – one agreeing to eliminate the FCC Form 397 EEO Mid-Term Report and a second starting a proceeding to reexamine certain aspects of the criteria used to select the applications to be granted for new Noncommercial Educational radio and television and LPFM stations. We wrote about the draft order to abolish the Form 397 here, and the draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on the noncommercial criteria here. We will post the final orders in these proceedings here when the FCC releases them – quite possibly later today (Update, 2/15/2019, 1:50 PM EST – the text of the NCE/LPFM NPRM is now available here; Update 2:30 PM EST – the text of the order that will eliminate the Form 397 is now available here).

The elimination of the Form 397 does not become effective immediately as it still needs to be published in the Federal Register and undergo Paperwork Reduction Act review. So TV stations in the northeast, who are due to file their mid-term reports in the coming months, will continue to have this obligation. The change will have no practical effect for more than 4 years, until the first mid-term after the upcoming license renewal cycle hits in June 2023 (see our article here on the start of the radio license renewal cycle in June 2019). The elimination of this report also does not have any substantive effect on the obligations of full-power broadcasters who are part of employment units with 5 or more full-time employees to widely dissemination information about their job openings and to engage in community outreach efforts (even if they have no job openings) to educate the public about employment opportunities in broadcasting and to train existing employees for more advanced positions. So this really is just the elimination of a paperwork burden.
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