Ten years ago, the FCC did a startling thing. It recognized that much of the rise in “pirate radio” came from frustrated demand for small, local licenses of the sort the FCC had simply stopped distributing many years before. So the FCC offered a deal to the “pirate” community: stop transmitting illegally and the FCC would create a low-power radio service. Despite fierce resistance by commercial broadcasters at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) (and, to their eternal shame, National Public Radio, which can be just as much of a bad incumbent as its commercial sisters), the FCC adopted rules to allow 100-watt radio stations to operate on a non-commercial basis. These stations would operate on a “secondary” basis to full power stations, required to protect these stations from any interference. To create space for these new community Low Power FM (LPFM) stations, the FCC would relax the “third adjacent” spacing requirement, a mechanical rule for spacing radio station transmitters far enough apart adopted in the early days radio to ensure no interference. The FCC studied the matter and concluded that relaxing this rule would not cause harmful interference to existing full-power stations.
Needless to say, the full-power broadcasters did not give up so easily. But neither did the supporters of LPFM. It’s a story worth celebrating not merely for the result, but for what it teaches us about staying in the struggle for the long-haul.