How do I start a new LPFM station?
How do I start my own LPFM station?
At this time, we must regretfully say, the answer is that you can't.
The FCC designates "windows" of opportunity when they will accept applications for new LPFM stations. In the past, there was a series of windows in 2000 and 2001 based on state and then a nationwide window in 2013. The long delay between 2001 and 2013 was caused by a series of events including a massive number of applications filed in 2003 for FM translators (relay stations) as well as rule changes to implement the passing of the Local Community Radio Act of 2010 (LCRA) which was signed by President Obama in January 2011.
There are currently three LPFM-related petitions for rulemaking. The REC sponsored petition, RM-11749 is a straightforward proposal that will provide at least half of the existing LPFM stations the opportunity to upgrade from 100 watts at 30 meters HAAT to 250 watts at 30 meters HAAT (LP-250). A much more controversial petition, RM-11753 would allow for commercial interests to operate LPFM stations and would redefine how LPFM stations protect other stations. In 2018, REC filed RM-11810 which proposed improvements to LPFM in a manner which is more engineered improving the availability of new stations and more flexibility to existing channels. If the FCC desires to consider these petitions for rulemaking, there would need to be a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). The NPRM process can take about a year to go through the entire cycle. While RM-11749 was geared towards existing stations and would have no impact on a window for new stations and RM-11810 targets existing and new stations, RM-11753 proposes to completely redefine the LPFM service and it could result in delays. There are also rogue groups that claim to support LPFM who wish to insert their own agenda that could further delay progress towards another LPFM window. LP-250 would have been approved in 2012 if it wasn't for these rogue groups. REC has also suggested additional changes to the LPFM service in MB Docket 17-105 in order to make LPFM more flexible while remaining true to the LCRA.
In 2017 and 2018, the FCC has had filing windows for new FM translators to be owned and operated by existing licensed AM broadcast stations to add lower-powered FM signals. There were over 2,000 new permits granted. Not only does this reduce the number of opportunities for new LPFM stations, especially in urban areas, the FCC also needs to process these applications before any other filing windows can take place. There are also other broadcast interests who may be waiting for filing windows that the FCC may want to get to for LPFM.
REC feels that the dust may start clearing about 2021 after these efforts have completed and if the FCC decides on moving on RM-11749/RM-11810 to upgrade existing LPFM stations. Even then, there may be other groups wanting a piece of the FCC's time. For example, we have not had a filing window for new non-commercial full power stations since 2010. Based on the outcome of the overall AM Revitalization proceeding, there may be an open or restricted filing window for AM broadcast facilities.
Therefore, we can only speculate on when another LPFM window could open. It is highly doubtful for any time before 2021 but will be more likely 2023 if ever at all.
What can an organization do right now?
First, and most importantly, please stay in the mindset that any hope for an LPFM filing window in the next few years is purely speculation and it may never happen despite how much REC is pushing the issue with the FCC.
Entities applying for LPFM stations should be existing organizations that are engaged in other community services and wish to use radio as an extension to their educational program. If you are wanting to run a station as a business to make money (e.g. make a profit), have no desire to truly serve the community (i.e. use the station as a personal jukebox) or just run the station as a weekend hobby, LPFM IS NOT (repeat NOT) the appropriate service for you. Organizations should have a board of directors consisting of multiple members who help govern the station. Board members can not have an ownership stake in other radio or TV stations or a daily newspaper and board members should not have any history of unlcensed (pirate) broadcasting, especially if the FCC has issued a notice of unlicensed operation. The organization must be recognized as a non-profit corporation by a state government (preferably the state the station is in) and the use of so-called "unincorporated associations" is discouraged as most applications from those types of organizations fail. Board members should reside within 20 miles of the proposed transmitter site (10 miles in the top 50 markets) and the organization should have a headquarters within the same radius (current rules require either 75% of the board or the headquarters within the 20/10 mile radius). Organizations should be prepared to provide 8 hours of local programming per day and be able to staff a main studio for up to 20 hours per week (based on the outcome of the LPFM window, stations may be subject to these additional rules).
If the rules for points do not change (and we are not proposing to change them), the FCC will give priority to organizations that have been established and in the community for a minimum of two years prior to filing the application during a filing window. This means being established as a non-profit corporation at the state level (preferably in your own or adjacent state) for a minimum of two years. Your corporate status should remain active prior to, during and following the filing window. This means filing any state required annual reports and paying any necessary fees to the state corporation commission to keep your status active. Please note, the FCC frowns highly on so-called "unincorporated associations" and in order to obtain a license as an unincorporated association, there is a substantial burden of demonstrating that your organization was active prior to the filing window, even more of a burden if you are claiming the points for two years local presence. Do the right thing, file with the state.
You may want to consider streaming an internet station. This will require licensing through SoundExchange as well as the performing rights organizations ASCAP, BMI and SESAC or by using a streaming provider that packages these services together.. However, if you have the resources and plan to have the listeners, you are better off dealing with the licensing organizations directly and obtaining a streaming server from another provider. Not only will this get your organization an established voice in the world, it will be great training for that day you may be able to get a signal over the air.
If you are in an urban area, it is very unlikely that a channel will be available due to the 2016, 2017 and 2018 filing activities by FM translators. Also realize, that if there are channels available at a particular location that are "second-adjacent waiver" channels, there may be specific antenna height and type requirements that will make things more costly and in some cases may not meet zoning and land-use restrictions in your community.
Where it comes to LPFM, be prepared for sticker shock. It is not as simple as connecting an antenna to a transmitter and going on the air. LPFM stations are required to have specific LPFM certified transmitters as well as additional equipment such as emergency alert system (EAS) decoders. You must also factor in the cost of the antenna which can get costly if you are having to protect a second-adjacent channel station. LPFM applicants planning to use a commercial tower site such as those offered by American Tower and SBA should be prepared for many up-front costs including advance payment of rent, insurance, site surveys, tower climbers (from their preferred list) and potentially the costs of installing cabinets, racks or bringing internet or electricity to your equipment. Even for the most basic LPFM configuration using your own site, you should plan a minimum of $25,000 even though some may claim you can do it for much less. Remember, because you can't profit from LPFM, don't expect to recoup these costs from just underwriting. There is a huge amount of community support and fundraising that is necessary to make one of these stations. Just be ready to handle the big numbers if your application is successful.
The FCC will announce when a window will open. Again, it may not be for a few more years before another opportunity opens. For now, you can contact your elected representatives at the federal level (Senate and Congress) to keep the pressure on the FCC to work towards another LPFM window in our lifetime. Also, you may want to call the FCC's call center at 1-888-CALL-FCC (1-888-225-5322) and let them know you are interested in starting an LPFM station in your area. The call center agents do log those calls. We must continue to show community need for new stations.
Thank you for your interest in LPFM. We hope to hear you on the air someday!