The FCC has formally invited comment on the 17-point “Radio Rescue Petition” filed by the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC) last July. You can download a copy of the Petition from MMTC’s website here. Comments are due by October 23.

The Petition presents an extraordinarily wide range of suggested steps intended (a) to jump-start the flagging radio industry and, in so doing, (b) to promote increased participation by minorities and women in the industry as well. We described the Petition in considerable detail in Fletcher Heald’s Memorandum to Clients last month. Here are some of the Petition’s more prominent – and potentially controversial – features.

Re-purposing of TV Channels 5 and 6 for audio use– Picking up on proposals previously filed with the Commission (by, e.g., the “Broadcast Maximization Committee” in its comments in MB Docket 07-294), MMTC suggests that TV Channels 5 and 6 could be converted to audio use. That chunk of the spectrum, largely freed from television operation following the DTV transition, could serve as a new home for AM licensees interested in improving the quality of their service. Additionally, the Channel 5/6 spectrum could accommodate noncommercial FM and low-power FM stations, affording those services considerable space while, ideally, removing some interference-producing clutter from the existing FM band. MMTC proposes the establishment of a high-profile committee (patterned after the Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Services, the folks who ultimately brought us DTV) to work out the details of all this.

Revised community coverage and main studio rules for commercial stationsMMTC would have the FCC reduce, from 80% to 50%, the required coverage of each commercial station’s community of license. As MMTC sees it, this change would still provide a majority of the community with a listenable signal while making it easier for incumbent stations to make improvements or move tower sites, thereby increasing flexibility in tower siting and facilitating a more targeted approach to some audiences. 

With respect to AM stations, MMTC urges that all nighttime coverage requirements be eliminated (or at least “relaxed”). 

And it also proposes that the main studio rule be eased considerably. That rule currently requires that studios be maintained either (a) in the community of license, or (b) within 25 miles of the transmitter site, or (c) within the city-grade contour of any station (of any service) licensed to the community. In MMTC’s view, licensees should be permitted to establish their studios pretty much anywhere as long as stations not meeting the current rules: (a) maintain its public file and a direct telephone tie line at the library nearest to the community of license and (b) host three town hall meetings a year in the community of license to hear from local citizens.

Creation of a new local “L” class of LPFM stationsMMTC proposes that LPFM development be promoted through the creation of a new local “L” Class entitling some LPFMs to primary service status upon the completion of two years of operation as a “significantly local service”.

Extended construction periods for ALL new station construction permitsAccording to MMTC, in light of the economic crisis, the Commission should adopt a blanket one-year extension of the three-year construction period for all original permits for new stations. Concerns about warehousing spectrum, says MMTC, are vastly outweighed by the hardships and barriers to entry faced by broadcasters – especially small-market broadcasters – in obtaining financing and tower siting.

MMTC’s proposals are ambitious and far-reaching. Apparently designed to attract the broadest amount of support throughout the radio industry, they offer a little something for just about everybody. In doing so, however, they appear in a number of respects to transgress aspects of the “localism” orthodoxy developed in recent years under the watchful eye of, in particular, Commissioner (and, for a time, Acting Chairman) Copps. For example, the one-two punch of liberalized main studio rules and reduced community coverage requirements flies in the face of the agency’s previously-expressed interest in tying stations even more tightly to their communities.

This puts the Commission in a difficult position. On the one hand, it has – at least tentatively – embraced the concept of more intense regulation designed to insure greater localism. On the other, it has expressed concern about the paucity of minority/female-oriented stations. MMTC, an established representative of minority and female interests, appears to be suggesting to the Commission that the tension between localism and minority/female interests should be resolved in favor of the latter, even if that would benefit non-minority/female interests as well. 

It will be very interesting to monitor the Genachowski Commission’s response to that approach. It has been observed that the 2007 localism proposals were in many respects grossly unrealistic and likely to inflict extensive harm on a radio industry which was already suffering. The intervening economic meltdown of 2008 has exacerbated those problems. Will the Commission now back off some (or all) of its localism proposals in the face of MMTC’s petition?

Of course, not all of MMTC’s proposals run counter to localism. Some are not at all inconsistent with the Commission’s previously announced localism approach. But those proposals are still controversial. The Channel 5/6 suggestion would theoretically promote localism by assuring ample spectrum for new (and transplanted) LPFM stations. But re-purposing Channels 5/6 from video to audio would require the Commission to jump back into the potential quicksand of major league service migrations just months after the Commission had managed, at long last, to get itself out of similar quicksand on the TV side with the completion of the DTV transition. There is bound to be considerable resistance to that proposal, even though its proponents promise a far more efficient and equitable mechanism for distributing radio spectrum for the coming decades.

In any event, the Commission has invited public comment on the MMTC Petition and its various component proposals. Let the public debate begin.