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

Changing the city of license of an AM or FM station is getting more difficult, based on recent FCC decisions.  As we have written before, the FCC’s Rural Radio order changed the manner in which the FCC reviews city of license changes.  In connection with any proposed city of license change, the FCC reviews the proposal to make sure that the change will result in a favorable arrangement of allotments, making sure that the distribution of radio channels is in the public interest.  In making that decision, the FCC has relied on a series of priorities – first insuring that all areas of the country get at least two radio reception services (Priority 1 was to provide service to "white areas" that currently receive no radio service at all, Priority 2 was to provide a second reception service to all areas).  The next priority was to provide as many communities as possible with their first "transmission service", i.e. a station licensed to that community that would have a primary responsibility to address its needs and interests.  Finally, if there was no proposal to provide a first or second reception service or a first local transmission service, the FCC  looked at Priority 4 factors, i.e. other public interest matters.  In the past, service to a greater number of people itself was a Priority 4 consideration.  Based on a case released last week, service to a greater population apparently is no longer be viewed as justification for the change in the city of license of a radio station – even if the proposed move is from a rural community that already has a significant amount of service to a similarly well served urbanized area and results in a significant increase in the population served by the station.

The Rural Radio order changed the Priority 3 preference for a first transmission service by determining that any proposal for a city of license within an urbanized area would be viewed as being a proposal for service to the entire urbanized area (meaning that, instead of being a first local service to a named community, all the stations in the urbanized area would be considered as serving the same city). Thus, a proposal to take a station from a rural area (e.g. proposing to take the third radio station from some smaller rural town) to a city without a service in a urbanized area would no longer be viewed as providing the first local transmission service to the suburban community (but would instead be viewed as being a proposal to provide just another service to a metro area that probably already has many stations that are licensed to the various communities in the urbanized area).  Some had thought that, while Priority 3 would no longer justify such a move, a Priority 4 preference would be available if the move would allow the station to serve a much larger population, and if any loss area was already well served.  In the proposed move discussed last week, the Commission relied on language in the Rural Radio Order that stated that population increases alone would not be enough to justify a city of license change when a station proposed to move into an urbanized area.  In this case, the Commission’s staff found wanting a proposal to move from the well-served community of Boone, Iowa to a community in the Des Moines urbanized area – even though the proposed change would result in service to over 300,000 more people than are currently served by the station – increasing the number of people served by the station from less than 100,000 to over 400,000. The request was not denied outright, but instead the applicant was given another opportunity to supply additional information to demonstrate the public interest benefits that would result from the move. 


Continue Reading FCC Makes Changing City of License of Radio Stations More Difficult

Changing the city of license of a broadcast station was made more difficult by the FCC’s rural radio order.  That order, about which we wrote here, imposed substantial obstacles on broadcasters attempting to move their stations from rural areas into urbanized areas – making such moves difficult if not impossible in many cases. 

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

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