Friday, January 18, 2008

Full-Power Series #1: Non-Com Licensing Window - Relevance and Rationale

This post is the first in a series about last October's full-power, non-commercial licensing window opened by the FCC. Mike Janssen, project manager for FMC's Full Power Initiative, will provide an up-close look at several applicants, while examining what this process could mean for listeners.

It’s no wonder that old-school FM radio gets a bad rap among music fans these days. Megacasters such as Clear Channel monopolize the commercial stations, programming them with narrow playlists that offer little musical variety. Meanwhile, some public stations are airing more and more NPR-style programming, satisfying news junkies but giving little refuge to lovers of tunes new and old. The radio furnishes music aficionados with few chances to discover a happening new band or a reinterpretation of a cherished sonata. No doubt this helps explain the growing popularity of Internet radio, satellite services and the iPod, which emulates eclectic radio whenever you click “Shuffle.”

Yet there’s still hope for terrestrial radio. Last October, the Federal Communications Commission accepted applications from nonprofit organizations all over the country looking to start brand-spanking-new noncommercial FM radio stations. Any nonprofit organization was eligible to apply, and many were interested — the FCC hadn’t accepted applications for new noncommercial stations since before 2000, so there was plenty of pent-up demand.

During an intense 10 months, the Future of Music Coalition focused on recruiting arts and cultural organizations around the country to apply. FMC joined a coalition of hard-working, like-minded advocacy groups to drum up interest under the banner of Radio for People. Our partners in this coalition included Pacifica Radio, the Prometheus Radio Project, Common Frequency, Free Press, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and Public Radio Capital.

The FCC accepted roughly 3,200 applications from October 12-22, according to Public Radio Capital. Nearly 40 percent of those applications came from community and public radio groups, according to a statistical sampling analysis performed by PRC. The rest came from religious groups, including those Christian broadcasters that already operate large networks of stations all over the country and are eager to acquire even more. Last fall, the FCC decided to accept a maximum of just ten applications from each applicant; if the cap hadn’t been put in place, religious megacasters would have no doubt kept submitting. (At least 49 groups whose name includes “Calvary Chapel” filed during the window.)

Roughly 270 of October’s applicants, secular and religious, are on an accelerated ramp to FCC approval. But most of the hopeful broadcasters won’t know for at least a few years whether they’ll be allowed to hit the air. Why? Well, if the FCC were to grant all the applications it receives, the result would be interference. The Commission therefore has to figure out which proposed stations would disrupt one another and mitigate this potential interference by granting permits only to select applicants. (The 270 applicants on the fast track were lucky enough to face no competition in their areas.)

The FCC settles disputes among these so-called mutually exclusive applications by applying its “point system.” The commission rolled out the point system for the first time in March 2007 — in fact, it was the FCC’s long struggle to develop this method that delayed its processing of noncommercial applications for so many years. Thankfully, the point system favors applicants who are located near their proposed stations and who don’t already operate stations in the area, encouraging the qualities of localism and diversity in broadcasting that FMC also supports. But doling out points and resolving competing applications is time-consuming work, hence the expectation that it will take years before the FCC awards the last of the broadcast permits from this proceeding.

If you listen to FM radio — and, given that it’s free and almost universally available, many of us still do — the upshot of all this is that you could, someday, have some new radio stations on your dial to sample and, fingers crossed, get to know and love. Unfortunately, you’re less likely to notice any changes if you live in a big city. In most major markets, the FM band is so crowded that, for current and would-be broadcasters, squeezing a new station onto the dial is a pipe dream. But small to medium-sized cities and rural communities still hold opportunity for non-com broadcast hopefuls.

What will these newcomers contribute to our shared aural landscape? Could your stagnant local lineup come alive with sounds of esoteric musical genres? Fire-and-brimstone preachers? Earnest discussions of area politics? All of the above?

The answers might be a ways off, but it’s not too early to start digging. In coming weeks this blog will profile some of the would-be broadcasters whose applications are now trickling through the mysterious inner workings of the FCC. We’ll survey arts and cultural groups, religious broadcasters mega and micro, and Native American tribal groups. First up, we'll take a look at some applicants whose names alone give us hope that radio could get a little more interesting.

Mike Janssen served as Project Manager on FMC’s Full Power Initiative, recruiting arts and cultural groups to apply for stations and assisting eventual applicants throughout the process. He is a freelancer writer, editor and leader of media workshops in the Washington, D.C., area. Visit his website at


Anonymous said...

Very nice and informative....I have applied for a none profit FM license here in Pine , Colorado...

I look forward to the #2 one.

Bill Hensel

FMC said...

Thanks! Good luck with your application, and stay tuned for more in this series.