LPFM Journey – Part I

This is Part I in a series of posts that I will document my church’s journey in starting a LPFM radio station. Read Part II here. Read Part III here.

Image by Benjamin Hartwich from Pixabay

On a Wednesday in October, 2023, I got a phone call from an old friend (at this point in time I am going to keep some details vague) that runs a Gospel radio station in another state. He was calling preachers and pastors to let them know about an upcoming window of opportunity to start local radio stations for their churches. He gave me the contact information of a group that was looking to help start Christian radio stations in rural areas. That night, I talked to our church about the opportunity and our leadership team decided to explore it.

That’s how the journey began. Here we are two months later stepping out into the unknown. If you will indulge my geekness, I think Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins summed up where we are at very nicely: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

One of my passions is sharing information that I put together, especially when I find an area or topic that I cannot find good information on. That is the impetus behind this website. I want to do the same with what I am learning in our LPFM journey.

LPFM Radio

Lower Power FM (LPFM) is a form of low power broadcasting that is in use across the world. Different countries have different rules and regulations governing it.

In the U.S., the FCC governs LPFM stations and the major restrictions on it are:

Because of the technical restrictions, LPFM stations have a very limited broadcast range. The FCC estimates the approximate service range to be about a 3.5 mile radius. Many factors like terrain and interference from other stations can affect this. A station in a rural community with lots of flat farmland will have a much better coverage area than one in the middle of a metropolitan area. The term I often see associated with LPFM is “hyper-local”.

Much of the history of LPFM radio in the U.S. stems from pirate radio stations and free speech activists. Commercial broadcasters have mostly sought to control the airwaves through influencing Congress and the FCC. Since 2000, a series of legislative acts has carved out and created space for LPFM stations.

LPFM Licensing in the U.S.

The FCC only accepts applications for LPFM stations during rare windows. The most recent was from December 6-13, 2023. This is only the third window to open. The previous were in 2000-2001 and in 2013. If the timing remains consistent, there may not be another chance to apply until the 2030’s.

There are a LOT of very important details and requirements to an application. As a newcomer to radio, I do not see how anyone can do this without outside help (legal, engineering, etc.). There are numerous organizations and companies that can assist or manage the process.

The initial application is a Construction Permit. You provide information on your organization and the proposed transmitter location and specifications. Some notes on applications and requirements:

  • You need to be incorporated as a non-profit.
  • Outside of rare situations, you are only allowed ONE application per filing window.
  • 75% of your board of directors must live near your station location (either 10 or 20 miles, depending on if you are in top-50 Nielsen radio market)
  • 80% of your board of directors must be U.S. citizens.
  • Board members cannot have ownership interest in other broadcast licenses.
  • Board members cannot have been or be engaged in pirate radio broadcasts.

In your application you specify which frequency you are applying for. Just because there seems to be an open spot on your radio dial without a station does not mean it is available. There is a great emphasis on preventing interference between stations, the larger commercial stations have the priority. There are some search tools to help identify potential frequencies, including the FCC’s Low Power FM (LPFM) Channel Finder.

One fun aspect of applying is that you do not know who else is applying. It is actually recommended that you keep your application quiet until after the window closes so someone else doesn’t file a competing application. After the filing window closes all the application information is made available to the public. If more than one application is put in for the same frequency within the same broadcast range then a couple of things can happen. First, applications can compete head-to-head with a point system with one coming out as the victor. Second, a time share agreement can be reached where two entities share access to the frequency.

Next Steps After FCC Application

Wait.

Wait some more.

It evidently can take months or years to get your application approved by the FCC if things do not go smoothly.

Here is my best understanding of the step of the process from submitting your initial application to being granted your Broadcast Station License

  • The first action the FCC will take is to move your application status from “Pending” to “Accepted For Filing”.
  • Posting required public notices of your application (this is rarely mentioned) online and in the newspaper.
  • A 30-day window begins where people can file a Petition to Deny (PTD). Properly formatted and submitted PTDs will be evaluated by the FCC.
  • If all goes well, you are approved for you Construction Permit. You have three years to get your station on air.
  • Choosing a call sign. You can search for available ones on the FCC site.
  • Construct your broadcast tower. You can also lease space on existing towers, but whatever you do cannot deviate from your Construction Permit.
  • Install your transmitter and antenna.
  • Install your Emergency Alert System.
  • Test your broadcast.
  • Start broadcasting.
  • File Form 319 to receive your Broadcast Station License.

LPFM Stations by the Numbers

Here’s some numbers I am compiling from LPFMDatabase.com and RECNet.com to give an idea of the scope of LPFM radio in the U.S.:

  • LPFM licenses granted in the 2000-2001 window – 1319
  • LPFM licenses granted in the 2013 window – 1978
  • LPFM stations currently licensed (1-2-24) – 1956
  • LPFM stations currently on the air (1-2-24) – 1928
  • LPFM applications from the 2023 window (not all will be granted, of course) – 1,366

There are around 970 LPFM stations (at least in 2022) operating that are owned by faith-based organizations. So just less than half of existing stations are faith-based. There are 441 applicants in the 2023 window that are faith-based, making them 1/3 of the applications filed.

I want to do some research into these religious LPFM stations. Hopefully I’ll be able to share some information on that in the future.

LPFM and the Gospel

While LPFM radio was nowhere on my radar a few months ago, the more I look into it the more I am convinced there a wonderful opportunities for the work of the Gospel. Some thoughts I have had:

  • You can have a local, 24/7 Gospel witness in your community.
  • You basically have a 24/7 billboard being broadcast for your church or organization.
  • Many opportunities are available for community involvement.
  • In many parts of the nation, you have the opportunity to be THE local radio station.

Depending on the situation, you may not even have to do much broadcasting live. There are are networks that you can rebroadcast, such as VCY and Christian Family Radio.

I’ll share some more of the vision and ideas that I am crafting in the future.

Helpful Links

Want to know more? Here are a few good places to start.