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4-0 Vote Expected for Draft Franken FM NPRM

A draft NPRM on preserving FM6 stations -- low-power channel 6 TV stations receivable by FM radios and focused on audio content -- is expected to be unanimously approved with few changes at Wednesday’s commissioners’ meeting, FCC and industry officials told us. The owners of the stations -- sometimes called “Franken FMs” after the fictional Frankenstein's monster -- are optimistic about the FCC allowing them to continue broadcasting but concerned about proposals in the draft to make their licenses nontransferable or bar new entrants. FM6 stations serve underserved communities, said FM6 broadcaster Paul Koplin, CEO of Venture Technologies Group: “Wouldn’t it be in the public interest to let as many people do this as possible?”

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The FM6 rules affect a relatively small number of broadcasters and rule changes on it have historically stalled at the agency (see 0911040119), but broadcast attorneys said the agency’s basing the issue on preserving local programming this time around and the emphasis on reaching a final resolution in the NPRM are indicators the rulemaking could lead to FCC action this time. “We’re asking about preserving established local programming for radio audiences,” said Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a post announcing the June agenda. “The record is filled with examples of local, niche programming being provided by FM6 stations and we seek to minimize disruption to listeners that have come to rely on these services,” said the draft item.

The digital television transition required FM6 stations to cease their original analog broadcasts last July, but 13 stations have continued to broadcast by using an ATSC 3.0 workaround -- they broadcast audio and video in ATSC 3.0, but offer their analog audio broadcast as an ancillary service, currently authorized by Media Bureau grants of special temporary authority. The draft NPRM seeks comment on making that workaround official, and on whether the FM6 broadcasters should be required to pay the FCC’s 5% fee for ancillary services. The 13 stations operating on STAs have been paying the fee, according to the draft NPRM. Sending additional funds into the U.S. Treasury is part of why FM6 stations should “check all the boxes,” at the FCC, along with providing content for minority groups and not interfering with neighboring stations, Koplin said.

The draft also seeks comment on proposals from NPR to repurpose the Channel 6 spectrum for FM stations. NPR has historically opposed allowing FM6 stations to continue operating past the digital transition deadline. “NPR maintains that the spectrum occupied by a single TV channel 6 station could potentially accommodate up to 30 new FM stations,” said the draft NPRM. “Does allowing continued analog FM6 operations comport with recent Commission efforts to adopt more efficient and innovative use of digital television spectrum?” FM6 broadcasters are in talks with NPR about the issue, Koplin said. NPR didn’t comment.

The NPRM asks if limiting FM6 stations to only those currently operating on STAs would allay NPR’s concerns about efficiency, but that could shut out some stations, according to recent ex parte filings from FM6 broadcaster Metro TV. Metro hasn’t received an STA for WVOA-LD Westvale, New York, because the construction permit to build the station’s ATSC 3.0 facilities is still pending. Koplin, who owns several FM6 stations, also said he wouldn’t want FM6 stations to be capped at the current number.

The draft also seeks comment on eliminating interference protections for Channel 6 TV stations, long sought by NPR. Radio broadcasters argued doing so would open more room for radio stations, but Disney -- which owns full-power stations on Channel 6 through subsidiary ABC -- objected to such proposals in the past. “There is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that full-power television stations will be adequately protected in the absence of such rules,” said Disney in a 2020 ex parte filing.