Last week, at its regular monthly open meeting, the FCC resolved an issue that has been pending for years – what to do about Low Power TV stations operating on Channel 6 that use their audio to provide a radio service that can be heard on most radios at 87.7 -below the 88.1 official start of the FM dial, but still accessible on most FM radios. The Report and Order dealing with this issue also resolved, at least for the time being, two other issues related to TV channel 6. First, the FCC rejected a proposal to use channel 6 spectrum for FM radio in areas of the country where the spectrum is not being used for TV purposes. The other issue that was resolved, at least temporarily, was a proposal to modify or abandon the protections that noncommercial educational (NCE) stations operating in the reserved NCE band (between 88.1 and 91.9 on the FM dial) must provide to nearby TV stations operating on channel 6. While LPTVs providing FM service may have received the most attention in the trade press since the adoption of the order, those other two issues may actually have broader significance, and received less attention, so it is worth looking at all of the issues resolved by the FCC’s order.
The Franken FMs, or “FM6” stations as the FCC referred to them, have been in existence for well over a decade (see, for instance, our articles here and here). The “Franken FM” moniker was adopted seemingly because the service provided by these stations was stitched together from the use of LPTV stations that were in many markets all but dead economically, to provide a radio service that, in some cases, was quite vibrant. Until 2021, the service from these stations was just a byproduct of analog TV’s use of an audio transmission standard compatible with FM radio on TV channel 6 spectrum, which is immediately adjacent to the bottom of the FM band. In other parts of the world, FM extends below 88.1 so most FM receivers can be tuned to 87.7, the frequency on which these LPTV stations send their audio signals. But when the July 2021 deadline came for LPTV stations to go fully digital, the analog FM audio was no longer part of their transmissions, so these stations had to come up with a hybrid system that transmitted their video signals (and the audio accompanying that video programming) in a digital format, but allowed the audio FM signals to also be transmitted in an analog format that FM radios could still receive. The FCC allowed a limited number of stations to provide this hybrid service in conjunction with their conversion to ATSC 3.0 TV transmissions after their digital conversion, but until the recent order, only on a special temporary authority (STA) basis with a number of restrictions. The recent order makes these station’s operations permanent, and lifts many of the restrictions.