More than a decade ago the Federal Communications Commission came up with a great idea to help combat the massive consolidation in the radio market and to give local communities a voice of their own – low power FM radio stations. The stations were to be small at 100 watts – roughly the energy needed to power a light bulb – and were to be entirely commercial-free, with licenses only to be granted to non-profit organizations.

Just as the FCC was ready to start issuing licenses for LPFM stations, large commercial broadcasters got Congress to adopt rules imposing restrictions which significantly reduced the number of LPFM licenses available, especially in large and urban markets.  This restriction went on for more than ten years, and Congress finally did away with many of those restrictions last year.   

The FCC voted this week to kick up its efforts on LPFM. With the legislation, the FCC’s action is expected to clear the way for thousands of potential new local radio stations.  The FCC’s action unclogs a backlog of pending applications for FM translators, while also dismissing a significant number of translator applications.  FM translators simply rebroadcast distant radio stations.  The dismissal of a large number of FM translator applications will open up more frequencies for LPFM stations, which can serve as outlets for local communities and local information.

The FCC is expected to open a window for new LPFM applications sometime this year.

Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy division of Consumer Reports, has been a long-time supporter of LPFM and is pleased with this effort to bring new voices into the increasingly homogenous radio marketplace, which represents a huge win for consumers.

Parul P. Desai, policy counsel for Consumers Union, said, “We are pleased that the FCC is going to resolve the backlog of pending applications and create an opportunity to grow community radio. Low-power FM stations give a voice to local community groups that often aren’t included in traditional programming and help to engage consumers in the issues that impact them right at home. This vote today takes important steps in promoting the Commission’s goals of localism and diversity.”

The transmitter height of LPFM stations is limited to no more than 30 meters, giving the stations an effective broadcast range of about 3.5 miles. Some stations can reach radios as far as 10 miles away, however.

About 800 LPFM radio stations have been able to get on the air in the last decade. For example, KRBS, 107.1-FM inOroville,Californiauses a variety format to highlight the small town’s diversity and serve local needs, airing shows on veteran issues, radio theater, children’s stories and a wide variety of music. The Bird Street Media Project, the organization behind KRBS, sees the station as part of a larger effort to revitalize the town’s downtown as a home for small businesses and local artisans. The station is central to the community, especially since Clear Channel bought the town’s only full power station, dismantled it and moved the license elsewhere.

By some estimates, the proposed new round of applications could number in the thousands. Those interested in filing and application should already be ready when the window is opened by the FCC, which might only be open for a short time. One good place to find information about filing an application can be found at Prometheus Radio Project.