FCC: recent news briefs

Yes, it’s been a busy few weeks in Wash. DC. While the main news story continues, the sideshow known as the FCC has been equally busy with rulemakings, proposals & solicitation of input. Here’s a digest of recent stories:

The commission has been soliciting input on relaxation of the now 25 year old simulcast rules, but broadcasters have been less than enthusiastic in their response. The big corporations left it to their lobbyists – the NAB to comment on this & the NAB is in favor of the change. “The Radio Duplication Rule is no longer necessary to promote the goals for which it was originally intended,” the NAB stated in a filing. “Radio companies have no incentive to further limit their appeal by simulcasting the same programming on multiple stations,” said the NAB. “Broadcasters understand that airing diverse content on commonly owned stations is the best way to reach the widest audience possible and maximize revenues.” It goes on to argue in its filing that the rule may even artificially constrain broadcasters’ flexibility to respond to economic and technical developments. And the NAB suggests giving AM operators the ability to put the same programming on several AM’s in a market could help the stations attract listeners and advertisers to the struggling AM band while also cutting costs for owners.The proposal would further relax rules allowing more AM/FM simulcasting & also allow simulcast of AM’s within the same market. Currently 25% of total broadcast hours per week simulcasting is permitted, but the FCC proposes to eliminate this rule paving the way for AM stations wishing to consider all-digital transmission the opportunity to provide listeners with an analog signal source on FM. The proposal would also allow 2 AM’s within a market to split into all-digital on one, analog on the other. Here in the metro Seattle region we have a few groups of AM’s that simulcast programming but technically the stations aren’t all within the same defined market. Specifically, the Catholic EWTN service is heard on Seattle, Tacoma & Olympia AM’s & Radio Hankook also broadcasts in Everett & Puyallup on AM. Not everyone is on board with this change. LPFM advocacy group RECnet commented: “If anything, we feel that this rule needs to be toughened slightly,” it said. “Despite the larger number of radio stations, the dial still lacks true diversity.” REC said the FCC shouldn’t measure diversity by the number of stations but by the number of ethnic groups and other minority groups that are represented on the air. It pointed to the recent record-setting pirate radio fines in Boston as a ‘cry for help’ demonstrating some listeners are still not being served. The group Common Frequency noted in it’s comments that there is less diversity on the airwaves now than when the rule was last relaxed in 1992. They also stated the FCC needs to tighten up rules governing non-commercial FM broadcasters. “There is still a great demand for broadcast channels in 2020 from local and minority ownership. These entities are ‘locked out’ of pursuing spectrum by incumbent entities that are not local and/or have redundant signals,” it said in a filing. Both Common Frequency and REC Networks also suggested recent layoffs in the radio industry back their arguments. Comments & input on the proceeding are open through Feb 6.
FCC Duplication Rule docket

Having passed both houses of Congress, the president has signed a bill increasing fines & penalties for pirate broadcasters. Fines can now total up to $2 million & the new act streamlines FCC enforcement. Chairman Ajit Pai issued a statement Monday morning: “Pirate radio is unlawful, period. These transmissions can interfere with licensed radio signals — including broadcasters’ sharing of vital public safety information with their communities.” He said the commission has made a concerted effort in recent years to step up enforcement. “I’m very proud of this work — led by our Enforcement Bureau and its outstanding field staff. The FCC will continue to be an aggressive cop on the beat, cracking down on illegal broadcasting.” While illegal broadcasting can’t be condoned, the FCC has tended to overstate it’s case to congress & the public. Some of this motivation appears to be rooted in securing increased operating budgets & the hiring of additional personnel at the commission. The NAB has long been a cheerleader of these efforts. “[This act] has been an NAB legislative priority for many years,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, when news broke about the signing of the act into law. “Pirate operators interfere with licensed, legal radio stations. On a number of occasions, the FCC has found that pirate radio operators interfered with communications between airline pilots and air traffic controllers, creating a public safety hazard.” While Wharton’s arguments are solid, much of the NAB’s support of this bill is the inherent fear by the big corporations that support the NAB as their lobbying entity. The NAB constituent stations fear that radio listeners will prefer the eclectic & sometimes offbeat & alternative programming offered on pirates within their markets. The NAB has gone as far as to suggest fining advertisers buying time on pirates & even the ludicrous suggestion to the public that listening to such broadcasts are illegal. The act also requires the FCC to do mandatory enforcement sweeps in the cities where the problem is most prevalent. They must also file a yearly report summarizing the implementation of the legislation and related enforcement activities. The act also gives the FCC the authority to skip the step known as a Notice of Unlicensed Operation and go straight to issuing a Notice of Apparent Liability.

VHF low-power analog television stations that present themselves as radio stations — airing audio on TV Channel 6 spectrum just below the U.S. FM band face an end to their unique broadcasting service that now operate in 28 US markets mostly serving ethnic & minority communities. But once LPTVs transition to digital in 2021, listeners will no longer be able to receive audio from Channel 6 stations on 87.7 MHz. The audio carrier for TV Channel 6 can be heard on many car and tabletop FM receivers. As “RadioWorld” writer Randy J Stine notes: “Opportunistic low-power licensees use their TV transmitters to air separate audio and video content, according to those familiar with the practice. FM6 stations are programmed as radio stations, though they are still required to transmit a TV signal, sometimes merely travelogues or nature scenes, in other cases more useful information like visual traffic and weather. The TV signal is analog, “so no one is watching them,” according to one observer.” These stations have acquired the slang term “Franken FM’s”. The stations can operate this way thanks to a loophole opened when the FCC created the LPTV rules. As controversial as the practice might appear, legal analysts say the LPTV licensees are working within FCC regulations, though critics feel the practice was not what the FCC had planned when crafting LPTV rules. FM6 operators want to continue to provide analog carriers in order to reach FM radios after the LPTV analog sunset date July 13, 2021. There are approximately 50 LPTV and TV translator stations are authorized to broadcast an analog signal on Channel 6, more than half of which provide a separate audio stream for reception on 87.7 FM. Audio from an analog carrier on 87.7 FM and Channel 6 DTV can coexist on the same channel, according to the Preserve Community Programming Coalition (PCPC) presentation to the commission. “An 87.7 MHz audio signal can coexist on the same 6 MHz channel as a digital Channel 6 LPTV station without harming TV or FM reception” according to the statement they filed. LPFM advocate REC Networks also supports the continuation of these stations. Big industry lobbyist voice the NAB is known to not favor allowing “Franken FM’s” to continue.  NPR has also weighed in with comments asking the FCC to not continue to allow these broadcasters, citing interference to public FM stations & duplication of programming already in existence. A large amount of comments filed with the commission have again brought up the argument favoring an extension of the FM band down to 76 or even 65 mHz to accommodate AM broadcasters wishing to switch to the FM band. The FCC expedites the repacking of UHF TV channel spectrum having received auction money from the wireless & digital carriers, but seems unwilling to consider repacking channel 5 & 6 broadcasters to help save AM broadcasters in decline, in spite of championing ‘AM Revitalization’. The commission in December asked stakeholders and interested parties for fresh feedback on whether LPTV stations should be allowed to continue to operate this FM-type service. Specifically, it asked if digital LPTV stations should be allowed to operate analog radio services as ancillary or supplementary services. Reply comments in MB Docket No. 03-185 are due on or before Feb. 6.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has just issued a press release championing his work leading the commission & itemizing his accomplishments the past three years of his leadership. Resembling a corporate CEO or management statement, the release is to inform the public they can be reassured that tax dollars are being spent wisely by the feds. Elimination of the main studio rule, streamlining EAS reporting, the aggressive pursuit of pirate broadcasters, modernization of media regulations initiative, elimination of paper filing requirements and the move of public files to online, and a generalized team based approach to collaborative decision-making. Here is the release for perusal:

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

Author: Mike Cherry

retired broadcaster: on-air, MD, PD, asst PD, Prod Mgr, IT, station technician/engineer, pioneer Internet webcaster, station installation/maintenance; 12 years in commercial radio, 17 years volunteer in campus/community radio in B.C., Alberta & Wash. Amateur radio operator & "DXer" specializing in AM night-time DX, short-wave DX/listening & remote SDR DXing/listening

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