Moving a station from a rural area into a more urban one was a fairly common occurrence until the recent recession – when the value of new "move-in" stations in many larger markets essentially collapsed. Soon after the collapse, the FCC stepped in to stop what the marketplace had already severely slowed, by effectively prohibiting the practice of moving stations into urbanized areas.  In its Rural Radio Order (which we summarized here), the Commission adopted “presumptions” that eliminated preferences that applicants had received for proposing a new service to large suburban communities, and preferences based solely on the number of people that a modified station would serve. A number of parties (including ones that I represented), sought reconsideration of the FCC’s order, challenging both the theory of the FCC order and some of the details. On Friday, the FCC issued its order on reconsideration, denying any fundamental changes in the policy, but clarifying some of the details of the showings to be made in evaluating city of license changes for broadcast stations, and also grandfathering under the old rules more of the applications that were pending when the new rules were adopted.

Before discussing the changes, it is worth reviewing the Commission’s processes for deciding which of competing proposals for new FM channels in different communities should be granted, and whether the change in the city of license of an existing station is in the public interest. These choices are governed by Section 307(b) of the Communications Act and the substantial case law that has built up at the FCC around that section. Section 307(b) requires that the Commission make a “fair, efficient and equitable” distribution of radio service among the states and communities. Over the years, the FCC has adopted standards for determining how to make this distribution – favoring applications that propose a “first local reception service” (or service to “white areas” – those that currently receive no predicted service from other stations), net favoring a second reception service, next giving a preference to those providing a “first transmission service” (i.e. a first station licensed to a community). Finally, if none of the preceding preferences come into play, the Commission looks at “other public interest factors” – usually the total population served by a proposal, including an evaluation of the other services from other stations available in both the gain and loss area of a proposed facility move (or in the proposed coverage areas of the new allotments that the Commission is evaluating). 


Continue Reading Reconsideration of FCC’s Rural Radio Decision – Making It Difficult to Move a Radio Station from a Rural to an Urban Area

The FCC’s decision in its rural radio proceeding addresses numerous radio issues – some of which seem to provide a solution in search of a problem.  In an era where the President has called for agencies to review their decisions to access how they will affect businesses and job creation, some aspects of this rural radio decision appear to be moving in the opposite direction – imposing new hurdles on broadcasters trying to improve their operational facilities. While the FCC in this decision adopted largely uncontested rules that would promote the development of new radio stations on Tribal lands, the Commission also adopted rules making it harder for radio stations to move from more rural areas into more urban ones – rule that were almost universally condemned by broadcasters. The decision also restricted the ability of FM translators to “hop” from the commercial to the noncommercial band and vice versa, and adopted rules that codified the determination of how AM applications are determined to be “mutually exclusive” when filed in the same window for new or major change applications.  The changes to the procedures for consideration of AM and FM station allotment and movement are summarized below.  The other changes made in this proceeding will be discussed in a subsequent post on this blog.

Easily the most controversial of the decisions made by the Commission in this proceeding was the conclusions reached as to the movement of AM and FM radio stations from more rural areas into more urbanized ones.  We wrote about some of the concerns raised by broadcasters last week.  Many of the new rules and policies adopted by the Commission were ones feared by broadcasters – though many of the policies are still undefined, and how they are enforced may well determine their ultimate impact.  That impact may well take years to sort out.  Regardless of the ultimate impact on the actual movement of stations, there is no question that these rules will require far more paperwork from broadcasters seeking to allot new channels and from those seeking to change the cities of license of existing stations, and open more moves to challenge, making the process slower and more expensive.


Continue Reading FCC Adopts Rules Restricting Rural to Urban Radio Moves and Translator Band Hopping – And Adopts Tribal Area Preferences

At the FCC meeting next week, the Commission will be considering an item dealing with radio stations that serve rural areas, and the ability of licensees to make technical modifications to those stations that would change the communities which they serve.  While, as we wrote last week, most of the attention of broadcasters has centered on the television issues to be considered at the meeting as the Commission is to begin an inquiry on the retransmission consent process.  The rural radio issue poses real concerns for radio operators – especially those contemplating a move of a radio station from a community outside of a metropolitan area to one in a metro.  In the name of protecting service to rural areas, the Commission may well restrict minority groups, specialty programmers, and other new entrants from bringing new services to metropolitan areas – permanently entrenching those companies who currently have major market stations as the only competition in those markets.  A proposal to protect service to rural areas may well have the impact of decreasing diversity in large markets.

In virtually every large market, there is little or no potential to add new channels for FM service both because of interference protections that need to be accorded to stations in the market and because of protections to stations outside of the market but close enough to be short-spaced to any potential station in the metro area.  In some cases, creative engineering has found ways for some of these non-metro stations to be moved into the metropolitan area, or at least close enough to provide some service to those markets.  "Move-in stations" have allowed new entrants, some with specialized programming, to provide service to large cities – when such entrants could never afford the price of an existing in-market station, even if one was for sale.  Even "rim shots", those move-ins that don’t provide full coverage of a metro area, may be very worthwhile for groups with unique formats (religion, Spanish language, and other targeted programming) trying to reach a small audience that is not otherwise going to get service in such markets.   


Continue Reading Restrictions on Moving Radio Stations From Rural to Urban Areas May Be Coming – What’s The Potential Impact?

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:

 

  1. 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). 
  2. Service to gray areas – when a proposed station will serve areas that currently receive only a single reception service
  3. 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
  4. 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).


Continue Reading FCC Proposes to Encourage Rural Radio By Making it More Difficult to Move Radio Stations to Urban Areas