Last month, the FCC released its proposal to restrict the movement of FM stations from rural areas into larger markets (which we summarized here). The proposals that the FCC has put forward would greatly restrict the ability of broadcast owners to move stations to cover larger population areas – in many senses reversing the decision of the FCC just two
Rural communities – do their radio stations need government protection? The FCC seems to think so, proposing a series of new rules and policies that restrict the ability of the owners of rural radio stations to move their stations into Urban areas. These rules would make it harder for entrepreneurs to do “move in” applications – taking stations from less populated areas and moving them to communities where they can serve larger populations in nearby cities. The Commission states that it is making these proposals to attempt to live up to its obligations under Section 307(b) of the Communications Act to ensure a “fair, efficient and equitable” distribution of radio services to the various states and communities in the country. While this may be a noble goal, one wonders if it is a solution in search of a problem. Are there really rural communities that have an unmet demand for missing radio services – and which can economically support such services? And do these proposals conflict with other goals of the new Commission, by effectively decreasing the opportunities for minorities and other new entrants from acquiring stations in major markets – by taking away move-in stations that are often the only stations that these broadcast station owners can afford in urban markets? These are questions that the FCC will need to resolve as part of this proceeding.
A Section 307(b) analysis is done by the FCC when it faces conflicting proposals, specifying different communities of license, for new AM stations or requests for new FM allotments. It is also required when an applicant proposes to move a station from one community to another, as the applicant must demonstrate that the move to the new community would better serve the objectives of Section 307(b) than would the current location of the station. In the past, the 307(b) analysis looks at several factors, or “Priorities.” These include:
- Service to white areas – when a proposed station will serve “white area,” an area where residents currently receive no predicted radio service (no “reception service” in FCC parlance).
- Service to gray areas – when a proposed station will serve areas that currently receive only a single reception service
- Provision of a first local “transmission” service – where the proposed station will be the first station licensed to a particular community, and thus the first station that has the primary responsibility to serve the needs of that community
- Other public interest factors – usually meaning which proposal will provide the service to the most people (with service to “underserved areas,” i.e. those that receive 5 or fewer “reception services,” getting somewhat more weight).
While it seems like we just finished the election season, it seems like there is always an election somewhere. We are still getting calls about municipal and other state and local elections that are underway. And broadcasters need to remember that these elections, like the Federal elections that we’ve just been through, are subject to the FCC’s equal time (or "equal opportunities") rule. The requirement that lowest unit rates be applied in the 45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election also apply to these elections. "Reasonable access," however, does not apply to state and local candidates – meaning that stations can refuse to take advertising for state and local elections (unlike for Federal elections where candidates must be given the right to buy spots in all classes and dayparts on a station), as long as all candidates for the same office are treated in the same way. So stations can take ads for State Senate candidates, and refuse to take ads for city council, or restrict those ads to overnight hours, as long as all candidates who are running against each other are treated in the same way.
One issue that arises surprisingly often is the issue of the station employee who runs for local office. An employee who appears on the air, and who decides to become a candidate for public office, will give rise to a station obligation to give equal opportunities to other candidates for that same office – free time equal to the amount of time that the employee’s recognizable voice or likeness appeared on the air. While a station can take the employee off the air to avoid obligations for equal opportunities, there are other options for a station. See our post here on some of those options.
In an unusually contentious FCC meeting, the FCC adopted rules that promote Low Power FM ("LPFM") stations seemingly to the detriment of FM translators and improvements in the facilities of full-power FM stations. While no formal text of the decision has yet been released, the Commission did release a Public Notice summarizing its action. However, given the lack of detail contained in the Notice as to some of the decisions – including capping at 10 the number of translator applications from the 2003 FM translator window that one entity can continue to process and the adoption of an interim policy that would preclude the processing of full-power FM applications that created interference that could not be resolved to an existing LPFM station – it appears that the Press Release was written before these final details were determined. And given that the two Republican Commissioners dissented from aspects of this order supported by their Chairman (and also dissented on certain cable items considered later in the meeting), one wonders about the process that resulted in the Republican chairman of the FCC voting with the two Democratic Commissioners on an item that in many respects favors LPFM stations to the detriment of existing broadcast operators.
In any event, specific decisions mentioned in today’s meeting include:
- Treating changes in the Board of Directors of an LPFM station as minor ownership changes that can be quickly approved by the FCC
- Allowing the sale of LPFM stations from one non-profit entity to another
- Tightening rules requiring local programming on these stations
- Maintaining requirements that LPFM stations must be locally owned, and limiting groups to ownership of only one station
- Limiting applicants in the 2003 FM translator window to processing only 10 pending applications each, and requiring that they decide which 10 applications to prosecute before any settlement window opens (the two Republican Commissioners favored allowing applicants to continue to process up to 50 applications)
- Adopting an interim policy requiring that full-power FM stations that are improving their facilities in such a way that their improvement would interfere with an LPFM station to work with the LPFM to find a way to eliminate or minimize the interference. If no resolution could be found, the full-power station’s application would not be processed (which we have expressed concerns about before)
- Urging that Congress repeal the ban on the FCC making any changes that would eliminate protections for full power stations from third-adjacent channel interference from LPFMs
Yesterday’s unique Public Notice outlining Chairman Martin’s proposals for reform of the multiple ownership rules (which we summarized here) is a surprisingly restrained and limited approach to relaxation of the ownership rules – proposing to relax only the newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership prohibitions, and only in the Top 20 TV markets. Moreover, the reform would only allow the combination of a daily newspaper and a single radio or TV station, and the newspaper-TV combination would only be allowed if the TV station is not one of the Top 4 ranked stations in the market. While the extremely limited nature of the proposed relief has not stopped critics of big media from immediately condemning the proposal (see the joint statement of Commissioners Copps and Adelstein, here), much less attention has been paid to those multiple ownership issues that the Chairman’s proposal does not seem to address – including TV duopoly relief in small markets and clarifications to the radio ownership rules requested by a number of broadcasters who sought reconsideration of the changes that arose from the 2003 ownership reforms.
The Chairman’s Public Notice is itself a new approach to regulation – putting out for public comment (due by December 11) an action of the Commission just before that action is to be taken. Usually, the Commission proposes a set of rule changes in a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and the Notice provides time for interested parties to comment and then reply to each other’s comments. Once all the written comments are submitted to the Commission, parties and their representative often make informal visits to the FCC to argue about the suggestions that have been made, and eventually, after much consideration, the Commission’s staff writes up a decision which is vetted by the Commissioners and their staff, and voted on by the full FCC. Usually, these final decisions are shrouded in secrecy – though outlines of the proposals are often the subject of informed gossip and rumor, rarely does anyone see the full set of rules that the Commission is considering until after the decision is made.
Twice this week, the FCC released decisions denying applications proposing city of license changes for AM stations proposing to take away the only station licensed to one community and move it to another. In its order adopting simplified city of license changes (see our previous posts including those here and here), the FCC refused to change its policy of not allowing the removal of an established radio station which is the only station licensed to a community except in cases where an extraordinary showing justifying a waiver of the rules could be made. The two cases decided this week show that merely moving to a community with greater population (even one which has no other station licensed to it) will not, in and of itself, justify a waiver of the rules. Thus, stations which are the only station licensed to their communities are effectively blocked from changing cities of license without providing a "back-fill", i.e. moving another station so that it can be licensed to the community that would otherwise be abandoned.
In one case decided this week, the broadcaster proposed to move its AM station to a community that had three times the population of the one that it was proposing to leave. The Commission rejected the move, finding that the residents of the current community should be able to rely on continued service from that station. This was true even though other stations could be received in the community, as the Commission reminded licensees that their primary responsibility is to serve the needs of their city of license, and that this primary service cannot be duplicated by the secondary service provided by a station licensed to another town or city.
During a panel at the NAB Radio Show, FCC Audio Services Division Chief Peter Doyle was asked a question about the processing of FM applications filed under the new simplified process for upgrades in their technical facilities and for changes in their cities of license (see our post here for details about that process). The question dealt with rumors that the processing of certain FM applications were being delayed if the proposed upgrade would cause interference problems to any LPFM stations which would threaten their existence. We have written about our concerns that such a policy was possible, here. According to the response yesterday, these delays are indeed taking place – meaning that LPFM stations that are supposed to be secondary services which yield to new or improved full-service stations are now blocking improvements in the facilities of these full-power stations.
Doyle explained that, at the moment, there is no policy of denying the full-service station’s application – but these applications are being put on hold if they would impede an LPFM’s ability to continue to operate in order to study options as to how the LPFM service might be preserved through a technical change or through agreements to accept interference. While no final determination has been reached as to what will happen to the applications if there is no available resolution to the LPFM interference issue, he pointed to the pending rulemaking (pending for almost two years) that would give LPFM’s higher status, and in effect allow them to preclude new or improved full-service operations. There was some indication that these actions were being taken pursuant to the potential policies set out in that Notice of Proposed Rulemaking – even though these policies were simply proposals advanced for public comment and have not yet been adopted by the full Commission.
In the last week, several new LPFM issues have arisen – one a Congressional push to authorize more of these stations by ignoring third adjacent channel interference to full power stations, and another involving complaints to the FCC about LPFM stations being forced to change channels or cease operation because of interference from changes made by full power stations. The latter issue has apparently arisen in the context of stations taking advantage of the FCC’s rules which made it easier to effectuate changes in the cities of license of FM stations (see our summary of the rule changes here), causing more movement of such stations. Both of these issues could present issues for FM broadcasters.
The Congressional action was initiated by the introduction of legislation in both the House and the Senate that would eliminate third adjacent channel protections that full power stations have from LPFMs. Those protections have been the subject of controversy since the FCC authorized the LPFM service. LPFM advocates have contended that the interference protections are unnecessary, as most FM receivers should be able to distinguish between stations on third adjacent channels. The NAB contends that the protections are needed as there are still many radios that would be affected by that interference. Full power stations, except for those authorized at short-spacings prior to 1964, are protected from third adjacent channel interference from each other. Competing engineering studies have been done, the FCC has not acted on this question (and in fact Congress had prohibited such action years ago). But now, some feel that the time for some liberalization of the rules is in order.