LPFM – Should you care?

Low Power FM is a new radio service created by the FCC in 2003, and the movement picked up speed near the end of the Bush Administration.  Low-Power FM licenses non-profit entities to set up a 100 watt (or less) FM transmitter in areas where it won’t create interference with any existing FM station. 

If part, LPFM was created to “legalize” Pirate radio stations – people running their own FM stations without a license.  Some Pirate FM stations have a large enough following that they are show up in rating services.  Expansion of Low Power FM (possibly into the area now used by TV channels 5 and 6) could be one way to respond to the voices demanding that radio do more local programming.

About a week ago, I added the 861 licensed LPFM stations and began searching for web sites and streams.  I was a bit surprised to find that LPFM stations have web sites that are generally better than many commercial stations, and many of them are streaming on the Internet.

The “Who is running LPFM?” stations is also interesting.  Putting them into neat little piles, the folks running these seem to be:

  • Churches – especially Seventh Day Adventists.  This use was probably the reason the Bush administration supported expansion of LPFM over the objections of the “Radio Lobby” (translation: NAB)  It’s a logical way for a church to broadcast to its members who can’t get to the church for services, and to generally advance the ministry efforts
  • Left Wing “community” activist radio – a fair number of the stations carry Pacifica Radio’s programs like Democratic Underground.  These stations emphasize their non-profit status and the evils of corporate ownership of radio (with links to make your tax-deductible contribution). 
    Some are run by Native American tribes, some are “Community Groups” – which is right up President Obama’s alley.
  • Colleges and high schools – having a complete FCC license carries paperwork  burdens and regulations that many of these stations can’t keep up with.  LPFM offers a simpler process to get and stay on the air, and in some cases more power than they would have had with a “real” license
  • Fine Arts groups – people in town who put on concerts, plays, talk about books they’ve read, what’s going on in town and generally want to socialize using radio, but without the heavy dose of politics of the Community Radio groups
  • City, State, and quasi- government agencies – Traffic alerts, NOAA weather, tourism information, Chamber of Commerce, city council broadcasts.  Think Public Access Cable TV without the picture
  • Individual who just want to run a radio station even if nobody listened.  Growing up, many a young person has played “Radio DJ” in their bedroom.  LPFM is a way for people to do that where a few people might actually be able to listen.  The most curious of these is Little Buddy Radio in Beckley, WV.  This LPFM station was started by Bob Denver, who you would remember as Gilligan on the TV series, or Maynard G. Krebs if you’re approaching Social Security retirement age.  Bob Denver died in 2005, but his widow keeps the station running in his memory.

LPFM has a lot going for it, which is part of why I decided to add them in.  But without the ability to sell advertising and have budgets to hire staff, how many of them can really survive for very long?  Perhaps they need some government funding to spread the message of change.

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2 Responses to LPFM – Should you care?

  1. WesternMa says:

    With Bill Moyers encouraging people to contact their Congressmen to support “Local Community Radio” and setting up a Facebook page “to open up the airwaves to local and community voices” with should care. Senator Durbin has introduced a bill to encourage “diversity” in the ownership of radio stations, which is nothing but a backdoor counter to Senator DeMint’s bill (which passed today) to table the Fairness Doctrine. Yes, we definitely should care if we care about freedom of speech.

    • Art Stone says:

      There is a fair amount of sentiment among the incoming FCC people that LPFM may have been a mistake. Part of it is complaints from the NAB, which has lots of money to throw around.

      But I think the bigger thing they don’t like is that most of the LPFM’s went to Christian (gasp!) broadcasters, and by their nature LPFMs are very hard to monitor. In the event of a breakdown in social order, LPFMs may be the clearing house for people to figure out what is going on. The “corporate” media stations are not even staffed most of the day.

      One idea that has been floated is that when analog TV goes away, part of the area where channel 5 and 6 are today could be converted to LPFM. Many analog FM radios already can hear chanel 6 at the bottom of the FM band, and LPFM stations could be added there without interfering with any existing “real” FM stations. A competing idea is to make it a digital FM band, which could increase the number of FM stations in a city by 100s. Needless to say, the NAB really really hates that idea.

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