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LPTVs Push Back on NPR 'Franken FM' Comments

Low-power broadcasters are pushing back on NPR's effort to drive a stake into what the noncom service calls "Franken FMs," saying such a move would kill off important diverse public interest programming. 

Some analog LPTVs operating on ch. 6 use their spectrum to program an ancillary audio service available on the FM dial (87.76 MHz) and want to continue to be able to deliver that analog signal after the mandatory transition to digital.  

LPTVs were not required to switch to digital at the same time as full powers, but the July 3, 2021, deadline* for their digital switch is on the horizon, which leaves the question of what happens to the analog radio service some of those Ch. 6 stations were using their spectrum to deliver, in some cases on both their video and audio channels. 

The FCC's Media Bureau sought comment on what the answer should be given that such continued analog transmission was not anticipated in the FCC framework for the move to digital video. 

NPR said that, all things considered, the FCC should not allow LPTV stations on ch. 6 to continue to operate analog FM radio services, services it has branded "Franken FM's that pose an interference threat to public radio stations--it says it is interference, not competition, that it is worried about.  

In comments to the FCC in response to NPR, a group of broadcasters--including Metro TV and Weigel Broadcasting--under the banner of the Preserve Community Programming Coalition (PCPC), say that continuing those analog FM services are in the public interest and that there are not legal or technical barriers to delivering both a digital TV signal and analog radio signal on ch. 6. 

They cited the use of those "Franken FM's" to provide "Spanish-language Catholic programming designed for Latin American immigrants in Southern California; the only locally-produced Spanish-language programming in Denver; programming that helps immigrant communities in Washington, D.C.; and locally-produced programming directed to the diverse needs of listeners in Syracuse, New York, including Spanish, Italian, Polish and Bosnian foreign language programming." 

They told the FCC that while NPR was trying to undermine that diversity argument by saying the stations offered standard FM formats like contemporary, sports and religious, that was glossing over the diversity within those formats. They said that was the equivalent of "arguing that NPR-member station WNYC does not serve the public interest because it is one of five stations with a news/talk format serving the New York area or that NPR-member station KCRW does not serve the public interest because it is one of eight stations with a news/talk format serving the Los Angeles area." 

NPR has argued that some of the stations are not even using the channel for video, just radio.  

PCPC said that as the number of analog viewers declined, there was little incentive to invest in the video side, but that will change with the switch to digital. And while the group said they did not think it was necessary, they signaled they could accept an FCC requirement that stations delivering an analog audio stream must also be delivering a digital video stream "at all times." 

*While full power stations were required to go all digital in 2009, the FCC allowed LPTVs to continue to broadcast in analog until 12 months after the completion of the post-incentive auction repack, currently on track to meet its July 3, 2020 deadline. That means LPTVs would have to make the digital switch by July 3, 2021.