Low-power AM Radio May Soon Emerge

Posted by Mitchell - January 6, 2006 (entry 388)

(originally published in Conscious Choice magazine)

WIDESPREAD DISCONTENT with homogenized, corporate radio has helped fuel national efforts to bring locally responsive radio into communities across the country.

The Federal Communications Commission has authorized one radio-related arrow in the quiver — licensed non-commercial low-power FM radio stations. Indeed, some 600 low-power FM radio stations across the country have taken to the air since the formal introduction of the service.

Unfortunately, in large cities like Chicago, low-power FM isn’t much of an option, either because the FM radio spectrum is often completely packed already, or those available community FM radio signals are of such weak strength that they don’t hold much hope of spanning across the entire city and suburbs of large urban areas.

But an opportunity could open soon for another responsive radio option: low-power radio stations on the AM band, LPAM

Repeated attempts to win the FCC’s ear as to the feasibility of LPAM finally succeeded in 2005, when the FCC accepted a multi-party petition requesting an investigation for a national LPAM service. The FCC then opened a preliminary one-month window in October and November 2005 soliciting comment on the matter. A preliminary count of the comments filed suggests that the overwhelming majority of respondents (including those filed by some Chicagoans) approve of LPAM. The only notable comments against LPAM were three filed, curiously enough, by the same attorney on behalf of three broadcast radio corporations.

The proposed LPAM service would license radio stations at signal strengths from 1 watt to 250 watts. (An LPAM signal 100 watts strong can reach a distance of about five miles.) But unlike LPFM, the proposed LPAM radio petition also allows for commercial LPAM stations, arguing that the current radio landscape doesn’t allow for many “mom-and-pop” commercial radio operations and thus impedes small-scale economic potential. Fortunately, the current petition also imposes strict limits on the number of LPAM stations any party may own — no more than 12 LPAM stations nationwide, and no more than a single LPAM in an individual vicinity.

With the initial comment window now closed, the FCC may announce its next steps within the next four months. This may include a window for individual LPAM radio stations. Or the FCC may simply decline to pursue the action with no announcement whatsoever, as it has done many times before. And even if the FCC grants its blessing, a national LPAM service may require Congressional authorization, given current laws regarding commercial media. The major corporate media lobbies that prowl Congress are likely to oppose LPAM, but these lobbies have endured some high-profile lobbying losses in recent years.

To learn more about the LPAM petition, including the latest developments in LPAM and possible future actions, consult the websites of the low-power radio lobby group REC Networks at recnet.com, and DIY (“do it yourself”) Media, a website that tracks new developments in radio and other media, at diymedia.net.

— Mitchell Szczepanczyk

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