By Gregory B. Hladky
4:50 PM EDT, October 22, 2013
If you've ever had a hankering to run your own local radio station and happen to have about $15,000 lying around to spend on necessary equipment, our recently reopened federal government has a heck of a deal for you.
The Federal Communications Commission is now taking applications for licenses from people, schools and other organizations that want to operate a low-power FM station. Thousands of new slots on the radio dial are being opened up across the nation, including some right here in station-congested Connecticut.
(They aren't kidding when they use the words "low-power." We're talking about stations that are broadcasting at 100 watts and can only be heard up to a few miles away. Compared to giant commercial stations pumping out their signals at 10,000 or even 50,000 watts, with listening areas of hundreds of miles, these so-called LPFMs are the munchkins of the radio world.)
"In the Hartford-New Britain-Middletown market, there are as many as eight [low-power FM channel spots available]," says Sanjay Jolly, policy director for the Prometheus Radio Project. That nonprofit group has been lobbying for years to open up more opportunities for local groups and businesses to get on the local airwaves.
"In downtown Hartford, there are one or two available channels," Jolly adds. "New Haven there is one available channel."
Applying for the federal license for one of these channel slots is free, but experts say getting the necessary equipment to actually start broadcasting could cost $15,000 or $20,000.
Jolly says there appear to be no new low-power FM slots available in Bridgeport, according to the FCC's latest listing. "The closest available channel I can find is about 10 miles away in Milford," he says.
There are also likely to be more slots open in the more rural sections of Connecticut. "I know there are some more in eastern Connecticut," says Mike Rice.
Rice, a retired radio engineer and station owner and the retiring longtime president of the Connecticut Broadcasters Association, says he has no doubt there will be plenty of applicants for those newly available LPFM channel spots in this state.
"Oh ya, they're going to apply," he says of what he expects will be a mixture of church groups, schools, public service organizations and enthusiastic amateurs "who don't have a broadcasting background... but always wanted to get on the air."
Rice says it's no surprise that few if any new slots are being opened up in lower Fairfield County. He says that region is far too close to the overwhelmingly radio-rich New York City market.
The fact that any new spots along the radio dial are being opened up for little and very local low-power FM stations is the result of a battle that's gone on for more than a decade.
Traditionally, the FCC required that each radio station be at least four frequency locations (often referred to as "clicks on the dial") away from the next station. That was intended to keep one station's radio signal from interfering with another's.
Big-time radio operations, including both commercial stations and public broadcasters, were dead set against allowing any more little stations to sneak onto the radio dial. They claimed giving those stations additional slots on the dial could create interference and distortion problems for listeners.
Rice thinks radio listeners will notice some overlaps between stations as a result of the FCC's decision to open up more slots on the radio dial. "It probably will cause some interference," he says, because "the FCC is shoehorning these in so tightly."
The big shots of the radio world also wanted to reserve many of those in-between frequency locations for "translator" transmission stations designed to expand a station's signal coverage area. The bigger the coverage area, the more listeners a station can get, and the more listeners you have in radio the more you can charge advertisers.
Advocates of low-power community stations argued the FCC was simply caving in to the big-money radio powers, and that more of the public's airwaves should be opened up for community-based groups. Oddly enough, Congress agreed.
In 2011, President Obama signed a law that allowed the FCC to reduce the number of frequency locations between stations. After lengthy debates and deliberations, the communications agency decided to open up thousands of new frequency slots for LPFM operations.
The last time anyone had the chance to apply for new LPFM slots on the radio frequency dial was in 2000. Most of the low-power licenses granted at that point were restricted to the empty rural areas between urban centers.
There are currently only about 800 low-power FM stations operating across the U.S., and less than a dozen in Connecticut.
Jolly and other experts are predicting things will be very different this time around. "We're expecting [applications] certainly in the thousands," he says, and that the number of LPFM stations in existence will "double or triple."
In Connecticut, he says it's likely that various "organizations will apply for those available channels [and we expect several of those applications] to be granted."
The FCC originally set Oct. 15-29 as the window for applications for new low-power FM stations to be filed. That got screwed up by the congressional gridlock over Obamacare and the debt ceiling, so it's now expected that the FCC will extend the application deadline.
The feds are expected to take two to six months to make initial decisions on the applications, and another three months to make final rulings. There is also an appeals process for groups that might feel they were unfairly denied a federal license, according to Jolly.
"It will take at least a year or more" for a new licensee to get the necessary construction permits and buy the transmission equipment needed to get a signal out, says Jolly.
Connecticut radio experts weren't expecting all that many new LPFM slots to be made available in this state because the radio dial around here is already crowded.
Rice says there may end up being an unintended advantage for the big commercial stations in having more of these little, low-power FM operations out there.
"This kind of broadcasting can be a training ground," says Rice. People interested in radio and broadcasting in general will be able to gain valuable experience at these tiny stations, he says. And those commercial stations that were so opposed are likely to end up hiring some of those enthusiastic newcomers.
"Those people can grow into the industry," he says.
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