What is Low Power FM Radio?

Attention: The filing window for low power FM applications is CLOSED as of November 15th, 2013. It is unlikely that the FCC will be making another opportunity to apply for low power FM licenses any time soon. For next steps and more ideas, visit prometheusradio.org/nextsteps and subscribe to our newsletter. Thanks for your support, and good luck! 

All over the country there are radio stations pumping out high-powered content with the power of a light bulb. Low power FM stations (LPFMs) are a forum for nonprofits, schools, churches, community centers, farmworker 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 grassroots pressure demanded community control of the airwaves. The service is entirely commercial-free, and licenses were only granted to nonprofit organizations. Low power FM stations can operate at a maximum power of 100 watts, which generally provides 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 put a hault to it after a lobbying campaign by corporate broadcasters, which restricted new licensing opportunities.

New Wave of Low Power FM
After a 10 year fight by Prometheus and our allies, the Local Community Radio Act was signed into law in January of 2011, freeing the FCC to license new low power FM stations.

Frequently Asked Questions on Starting a Low Power Community Radio Station

When can I apply for a station?

The FCC only takes applications during a licensing “window." The next, and possibly last, window for low power FM application is October 15-29, 2013. The FCC does not take late submissions!


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 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. You will likely have 2-3 years after you apply to fundraise the total startup costs for your station. Read more.


How do I find out if a 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,Tribes, public saftey organizations or governments. Nonprofit organizations must be registered under the rules of their state, but DO NOT need to have 501(c)(3) status. Your organization must have a board of directors and it must be a local organizations. Either 75% of your board members must live within 10 miles of your proposed transmitter location (20 miles outside the top 50 markets) OR your physical headquarters must be within 10 miles of the proposed transmitter location (20 miles outside the top 50 markets). 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 the open channels. 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.


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 is the application form on the FCC website?

The application form can be found on the CDBS, the database the FCC uses to electronically file applications. You must create an account and then select your application from a list. The application for an LPFM station is Form 318. Follow these steps to create a CDBS account to file your low power FM application.


How do I know if I’m in a top 50 market?

The list the FCC uses to identify the top 50 markets is the Arbitron Radio Market Rankings. You can find them at http://www.arbitron.com/home/mm001050.asp.


Can I apply for a call sign before a construction permit is issued?

No, but you can see which one’s are available and reserve one once you are issued a construction permit.


Where can I get more information?

We offer a range of support to groups trying to applying for a community radio station. If you are an individual who wants to learn more about starting a station, get fill out this form to get on our list. If you are with an organization that wants to apply for a station, please fill out an Applicant Group Profile. These email lists are the primary way we connect with applicants and supporters.