Pilot of the (low powered) Airwaves


Everyone is familiar with FM radio; it is ubiquitous. Most of us, however, know
next to nothing of LPFM – low-power FM, a non-commercial radio service
restricted by regulating authorities in various countries around the world.
Operating with transmitters ranging from one watt to 100 watts, the stations
are more commonly called micro-broadcasting stations and, like small-batch craft
brewers, these stations are pumping out an intensely local product.

The origins of low-powered FM radio are probably better recognised as “pirate
radio’. It was popularised in such movies as American Graffiti, featuring the real-
life Wolfman Jack, who bypassed US federal broadcast regulations to push out
rock “n’ roll songs from a transmitter in Mexico during the “60s. In the USA, the
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began distributing low-power
licences for community radio stations in 2000. Congress passed a law requiring
that the licences be more than three clicks (the jump from 96.1 to 96.3 is one
click) away from an existing full-power station. Congress made this stipulation
because existing stations were worried their low-powered neighbours on the
dial might cause interference. That largely excluded groups in urban areas,
where the radio dial tends to be crowded, from getting licenses. Lobby group
Prometheus fought to change that and prevailed in 2010 when Congress
passed the Local Community Radio Act. It granted the FCC the authority to allow
community broadcasters to be located three clicks away from other stations, and
to issue waivers to stations two clicks away, provided they don’t cause
interference. Big incumbent broadcasters, represented by the National
Association of Broadcasters, opposed the waivers. But in November that year,
the FCC sided with Prometheus and others, announcing the process by which
organisations could apply for new licences.

This was a big step to empower community voices, promote media diversity, and
enhance local programming creating opportunities for thousands of new FM
radio stations throughout the US.

On the other side of the planet, New Zealanders have been able to create their
own low-power FM radio stations since 1999 and freely broadcast on a narrow
range of frequencies. Commonly called the “guardband’, these frequencies are at
the top and bottom ends of the standard FM dial. The power is very low (usually
1 watt) and coverage is usually 5-10km from the transmitter location. The
stations are completely unregulated, as they’re automatically entitled to a GURL
(General Users Radio Licence) so long as they meet three basic technical
regulations. The first being that within a 25km radius of any broadcast
transmitter there must be no more than one low-power FM transmitter
broadcasting and the second stating that low power FM transmitter operators
must broadcast the contact details of the person responsible for the
transmissions at least once every hour and lastly adhere to the Broadcast Act.
That’s it! Power to the people. New Zealand has the most LPFM radio stations
per capita in the world with Auckland itself boasting 82 listed stations and 1053
country wide.

In South Africa LPFM stations are technically issued with low power sound
broadcasting service licences. The Broadcasting Act, 1999 (Act 4 of 1999),
defines a low power sound broadcasting service as a community, private or
public sound broadcasting service that radiates power not exceeding one watt.
For example commercial low power sound broadcasting services – services
operating from and broadcasting to shopping malls/centres, sports grounds,
show grounds and drive-in movie theatres, or any other like service the
Independent Communication Authority of South Africa (ICASA) may deem
appropriate. Both community and commercial low power sound broadcasting
licences are valid for three years, and special event low power sound
broadcasting licences are valid for 30 days.

Wherever they are in the world and although LPFM stations have a limited
broadcast range of just a few kilometres, their impact on communities can be
immense. These non-commercial stations inject vibrancy into a radio dial that
has suffered from years of media consolidation. LPFM stations offer a platform
for content and viewpoints that traditional media overlook. These stations foster
community identity and serve as hubs for vital safety information during
emergencies. The key here is for governments to deregulate the airwaves.

Allowing LPFM stations on the air empowers local broadcasters to serve their
communities with a variety of new voices and services. LPFM stations can
address the interests of specific groups – underserved musical genres, minority,
religious and linguistic communities – and provide a forum for debate about
important local issues, strengthen community identity in urban neighbourhoods,
rural towns and other communities that are currently too small to win much
attention from “mainstream’, ratings-driven media.

Don’t touch that dial! Low-Power Radio is about to make FM hot again.


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