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What is Low Power FM Radio?
All over the country and across the FM broadcast band, there are radio stations transmitting with the power needed to run a light bulb. These Low Power FM stations (LPFMs ) continuously pump out high-powered content. LPFMs are a forum for nonprofits, schools, churches, community centers, farm worker organizations, unions, environmentalists, and just about anyone else who wants to amplify their message.
The FCC launched the Low Power FM service in 2000 after a grassroots movement from smaller broadcasters who had been forced off the air by increased media consolidation over the past century. The service was entirely commercial-free, and licenses were only granted to registered non-profit organizations. Low Power FM stations could operate at a maximum power of 100 watts and a height of 30 meters, which generally provided solid coverage within a 3.5-mile radius and often reach radios up to 10 miles away.
Unfortunately, as the FCC was starting to license new stations, Congress stopped after a lobbying campaign by larger broadcasters and made some devastating restrictions about where new Low Power FM stations could be placed relative to existing stations. The stated reason for this legislation involved concerns about interference to larger radio stations. The interference concerns were shortly disproved by a third-party taxpayer-funded study and the FCC asked Congress to repeal the legislation, but the restrictions stayed in place for 10 years, severely limiting the availability of Low Power FM channels in urban areas.
The New Wave of Low Power FM
After 10 years of work by Prometheus, our allies across the country, and many champions in Congress, the Local Community Radio Act was signed into law in January of 2011, freeing the FCC to license new stations without the harsh restrictions. The FCC is expected to open a new window for Low Power FM applications in October 2013. Now is the time to start preparing!
What is low power radio?
Low power FM (LPFM) are noncommercial radio stations licensed by the FCC. They are run by nonprofit organizations, schools, community groups, local governments, and churches. They are not available to individuals or for commercial operations. Low power FM stations operate at 100 Watts or less and reach a radius of about 3-10 miles.
Thanks to the recent passage of the Local Community Radio Act, there will soon be an opportunity to start new low power FM radio stations for the first time in more than a decade.
When can I apply for a station?
The FCC only takes applications during a licensing “window,” which may only be a week long. At this point the FCC has indicated that the application deadline will happen as in October, 2013. Groups interested in applying for these licenses need to have their applications ready to submit by then. There are many ways to prepare before the window opens. Read more.
How much does it cost to start and run a station?
Startup costs vary widely, depending on the cost of your equipment, studio space, etc. A fairly minimal start-up budget includes around $15,000 worth of equipment. Recurring expenses include rent (unless you already have a suitable space for a studio and an antenna), music licensing fees, equipment maintenance, and people power. Stations that already have space and don't have dedicated paid staff can often operate on $3,000-$10,000 per year.
NOTE: You do not need to have these funds at the time you apply. The actual application is free! An engineering study, often a prerequisite to apply, can cost $500 - $3000. You will likely have 2 - 4 years after you apply to fundraise the total startup costs for your station. Read more.
Are there any costs associated with applying for a license?
The FCC does not charge a fee to apply for an low power FM license. However, you may have to pay an engineer to do a study to determine whether and where there is an available channel. The costs to conduct an engineering study can range anywhere from $500 - $3,000, depending on the complexity of the study. In some places, especially rural areas, a study may not be necessary, because open channels are easier to find with free software. You might also need to consult a lawyer, especially if you are working with a sponsoring nonprofit partner. Read more.
How do I find out if an low power FM channel will be available in my area?
We have developed an open source tool called Rfree which can be used to locate an available channel. Using this software, you can conduct searches of your area to determine which channels are free. A radio engineer can do a more detailed study to determine the reach of an available channel. In general, there are more open channels available in rural areas (where there are fewer existing stations), and fewer available channels in urban areas (where the radio market is already crowded). Read more.
What are the eligibility requirements to apply?
Low power FM stations must be licensed to local nonprofit organizations, schools, or governments. Nonprofit organizations must be registered under the rules of their state, but do not need to have 501c(3) status. Your organization must have a board of directors and it must be a truly local organizations. Either 75% of your board members must live within 10 miles of your proposed transmitter location (20 miles in more rural markets) or your physical headquarters must be within 10 miles of the proposed transmitter location. Once on the air, you must broadcast at least five hours each day, broadcast emergency alerts, and keep your equipment running within the technical guidelines set by the FCC. Read more.
What can I do to increase my chances of getting a license?
In crowded areas, many applicants will compete for a given open channel. The FCC gives “preference points” to applicants who meet certain criteria. One of the most important points goes to applicants whose organization had existed for at least two years. If you haven't been around for two years, you may want to partner with another more established group. In general, because many of these licenses will be competitive, its a good idea to think about
potential collaborations. Finding ways to work with other groups in your area will increase your potential to get airtime. Read more about the other preference points.
Are there any programming restrictions for an low power FM Station?
A low power FM license is a “non-commercial-educational” license, which means your station must have an educational mission. But the FCC does not evaluate the merits of this mission. Low power FM stations air a diversity of programming, including music, news, public affairs, etc. You cannot air paid advertisements, but you can engage in underwriting, which allows you to accept contributions from businesses and express gratitude for these contributions on the air.
What else can I do to prepare?
The best low power FM stations are participatory and collaborative. You can start reaching out now to others in your community, especially those whose voices aren't represented in your local media. Other community media makers make great collaborating partners, as do community-based nonprofits and grassroots groups. Involve others early in setting the mission and vision for your station, so that as you grow towards your goal, your station will have real impact in your community. You can also start making media now to build your base and experiment with radio. Podcasts are a really great way to get started. Read more.
How do I know who else is applying for a station in my region?
The best way to find out about other station hopefuls is to do some investigating in your community. By holding meetings, reaching out to community leaders, and asking around you should be able to find out if any other groups in the area want to apply for an low power FM station and/or collaborate with your project. You can also join our online community for low power FM applicants, RadioSpark. Here you can search for other applicants and see if there are any groups in your state or region.
Where can I get more information?
We regularly offer webinars and other information for low power radio hopefuls. Go to prometheusradio.org and click "Start a Station" on the main menu, and click "SIGN UP for Updates" to join our list. You'll automatically be added to our e-newsletter list as well. You'll also find more useful info under the “Station Support” tab at the top of the page.