LPFM Journey – Part III

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

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“Do”s and “Don’t”s of LPFM Broadcasting

Here are some things you must or must not do in regards to broadcasts on LPFM. Much of this is from the FCC’s publication The Public and Broadcasting and a lot of it applies to all broadcasts and not just LPFM:

You CAN NOT broadcast:

  • “Hoaxes”. Think of the legendary War of the Worlds broadcast.
  • Calls to riot or other lawless action.
  • Willful distortion of the news. I can hear the snickering now that most news is distorted anyway. Free Speech rights give a ton of leeway here.
  • Obscene, indecent, or profane programming. Again, Free Speech rights apply but many court cases have given the FCC the power to limit speech that is deemed offensive. It can be somewhat subjective. From the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 p.m. the restrictions are loosened somewhat. Still, some profanity or sexuality explicit material will not be acceptable at any time.
  • Commercials. LPFM is strictly non-profit.

You MUST:

  • Broadcast official station identification at the top of every hour.
  • Disclose rules for any contests or promotions.
  • Have permission to broadcast phone calls.
  • Acknowledge gifts or sponsorship for air time. See payola.
  • Provide equal opportunity and time for candidates running for office.

Other than these general guidelines, the FCC really doesn’t care about what you broadcast. They do not care if you play music or what kind of music it is (as long as you have the proper license!). They do not care if you are right wing or left wing politically. They do care if you are sectarian in you religious positions. That is all considered First Amendment Free Speech rights.

Special Notes for Religious Broadcasters

Much of the information out there on LPFM stations is geared towards “community” stations that extremely eclectic and open to practically everything to be broadcast. I have no problem with those sort of stations, and honestly I think it is very neat concept. But there are a few things I have come across that I think are important for when a church or ministry is the one operating a LPFM station.

First, there is a loophole for equal opportunity employment requirements. From the FCC: “The FCC requires all licensees of radio and TV stations afford equal opportunity in employment. We also prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. However, religious stations are permitted to require that some or all of their employees meet a religious qualification.”

Second, you have a little more flexibility with a “call to action” in underwriting when talking about a church or non-profit. While you cannot say “come see Jim at Jim’s Plumbing” you can say “come join us this Sunday at church”. I would still be very careful here. RECnet has a good FAQ on this.

LPFM Journey – Part II

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

Image by freestocks-photos from Pixabay

Are you ready for more LPFM talk? Here we go!

Setup Costs

So, how much will it cost to go on the air? Here’s some numbers I compiled from Prometheus Radio and Low Power Fm for Dummies. Please have some patience with my inexperience on a lot of this. I may not get all the numbers and details exactly right, but I do want people to understand the scale of setting up a station. As we go through this process I will update with more accurate information.

Last time, we looked at the application process to have a LPFM station in the U.S. It is highly recommended that you work with professionals for your application. There are aspects that you will need a knowledgeable engineer to put together. There are companies that will handle all of this for a fee. This varies greatly, but I’m seeing $500-$3,000 as good ballpark figures.

You will need a transmitter. Make sure it is FCC Type Certified. I hear some will claim this when they are not, so best to stick with reputable manufacturers. Expect $3,000-$6,000.

You will need a broadcast antenna. There are many options out there, and it looks like you can spent $200-$2,000 based on the models I see recommended.

You will need a broadcast tower to put your antenna on. You really need to have this figured out before you get your application in. You can file an amendment to your application if there needs to be any changes.

You can have one installed on your property or perhaps somewhere else that you negotiate a location. I don’t really know how to price this part, but I see used towers starting at around $2,000 and going way up from there. This is another area that you probably want to hire an expert.

Another option if you do not a place to put up your own antenna or perhaps you are located in a poor place to put one, is to rent space on existing towers. You may get lucky and find someone that will work with you because of how little power LPFM stations use. I’m hearing you can expect around $250-$500, but I’m sure there are many factors that can drastically affect those prices.

If you tower is remote or even distant from your broadcast building, you may need to build a shed or shelter for your equipment near the tower. You will also need a rack to mount your equipment. You will likely need some sort of ventilation or even climate control. Electronics produce heat and too much heat is not good for electronics.

If your tower is offsite then you will probably also need equipment to transmit your signal from your studio to your transmitter. This can be done with internet or wireless connections.

You are required to have an Emergency Alert System that will broadcast weather alerts and such. These can cost around $3,000.

All told, you are probably looking at $15,000-$20,000 minimum to get on the air… and we haven’t even got into the studio yet!

Studio Costs

The cost of setting up a broadcast studio can vary greatly. You can get on the air for maybe $2,000 and you can also spend $100,000 easy for top of the line, brand new equipment.

Are you renting a space? That’s an expense.

Have electricity? That’s an expense.

Need internet? That’s an expense.

Furniture? You could use folding chairs and tables or you could hire master craftsmen to custom build everything.

You will need an audio console. This is the backbone of your broadcast as all audio is processed through it. I priced some recommended models at $700 to $3,500, but they keep going way up from there. Most depends on how many inputs you need (fewer = cheaper) and how many “bells and whistles” you want.

You will need microphones. You could spend $10 on one (please don’t) or you can literally spend $1,000’s on one. Two models that are affordable and have a good reputation are the Shure SM57 and SM58. These retail for $99.

If you have mics you need mic stands or booms. You can spend $20 or $400 on these.

You need headphones to wear while on the air. You can get by with $5 ones are you can spend $1,000’s. There are plenty of good options around $100.

You will need playback devices like CD players, cassette decks, and turntables (depending on how old school you want to go).

Think of all the miscellaneous cords and adapters too!

How about a website? Domain and hosting are going to run at least $150 a year.

The good thing for a church LPFM station is that you probably already have space and some equipment (you have a PA system, after all). One thing to consider is the studio space really needs to be dedicated space. You need to be able to protect the equipment and also be able to broadcast without interruptions and unnecessary background noise.

Music Licenses

Are you going to play copyrighted music? Then you need licenses.

To play music on air, you need licenses from:

If you also stream your station online, there are additional licenses from the three entities above. There is also one more that is specific to streaming:

There is also a form with $50 fee that also needs to be submitted to the US Copyright office to use copyrighted recordings online. This is a one-time filing.

But just because you have these licenses does not mean you are free to play whatever whenever. There are some stipulations that come with them. You also need to track the copyrighted music you play online and submit reports.

So, just to be legal you are going to spend at least $1,000 a year for licensing, over $2,000 if you stream online. If you do not take the steps to be legal you can be fined, sued, and lose your license.

Manpower

Most LPFM stations seem to rely on volunteers to keep live programming on the air. For a church, it can be an investment to have staff man the station.

You can automate much of what goes out on the airwaves, so you do not have to have someone 24/7. The problem with this is that it does not create a reason for anyone to listen. Apps like Pandora, Stitcher, or Spotify, can do the same thing… and probably better! Listeners connect to the personalities over the air even more than they do music.

I’d suggest taking a look at other LPFM stations of all types and see how they manage their on air talent. You can likely find a model that works for you.

Funding a LPFM Station

LPFM stations must be owned by non-profit organizations. They are not commercial stations and there are strict rules to prevent them from becoming those. There are some interesting restrictions and requirements that you need to be aware of. Here’s the first one:

You cannot have advertising on an LPFM station. Period. You cannot sell or run ads. Since this is the primary source of income for commercial stations, you can already tell that funding a LPFM station is going to be difficult. Of course when you factor in the limited range they have there may not be many advertisers interested.

What you can do is receive contributions and and acknowledge them on air, a process called underwriting. This gets very technical. You can acknowledge that a business supports your station, but you cannot promote their business with a call to action (“…go visit them at….”) or promote their sales (“…everything is half off today…”). Confusing? Yes, yes it is. The FCC provides some guidelines but it can be pretty tricky.

Of course you can always just accept donations because you are a non-profit. Or if you are a church you can just fund it as a ministry. Or sell t-shirts and “merch”. Or you can get creative (but stay legal!).

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.