October 12, 2005 – 10:28 am
I quite often get emails from broadcasting students asking me questions about some aspect of radio so they can use me as a source in their essays. I try to encourage them toward some of the better books and articles – and I’m reluctant to say too much in print because the urge to cut and paste can often be overwhelming – but there are some things that not enough is written about, and I have opinions I’m keen to plant in the minds of impressionable young broadcasters…
For instance, here’s one from a student at a tertiary institution in New Zealand. She’s writing a piece about Low Power FM Broadcasting. I figure if I’m telling her this stuff, I might as well tell anyone else who might find it useful – or worth debating.
– How do LPFM stations in New Zealand differ from those overseas?
In pretty much every way. LPFM stations in the US can be anything up to 100W, whereas NZ stations are 0.5W by law. Anyone who wants to can set one up in NZ, whereas there are huge legislative hurdles everywhere else. LPFM radio is generally community focused, largely speech based and frequently political abroad, whereas it is generally (though far from exclusively) driven by a perceived gap in the market for a genre of music. There is no (legal) LPFM here in the UK.
– Where do you see LPFM broadcasting in New Zealand heading in the future?
I try to avoid predicting the future whenever possible, and there are literally dozens of things I’d like to see happen… but you’re looking for trends.
It seems to be becoming a reliably self-regulated sector capable of sorting out its own disputes and working to the greater good of LPFM broadcasters generally – rather than broadcasters simply acting out of self-interest, which is encouraging for the future.
Some things I’d like to see:
- broadcast power increased to 1W
- some of the smaller commercial operators (say, Base FM) be allowed to bid for medium-sized frequencies (100W) as the 400kHz spacing becomes more generally implemented
- remaining LPFM services non commercial
- internet connectivity allowing networking of community services (outside the 25km spacing rule)
- more community groups starting LPFM stations
- more schools starting LPFM stations
- Ministry of Education investment in school stations
- Decent catering at the Society of LPFM Broadcasters meetings
… and a whole lot more besides.
What I fear might happen:
- Existing commercial broadcasters staking ‘first in first served’ claims over guard band frequencies to the exclusion of newcomers
- Increased regulation, the eventual intervention by Spectrum Management and elimination of the guard band because of unresolvable disputes or disregard for power limitations by ‘cowboys’.
- Aggregation of ownership of LPFM stations as a business model, echoing events in the commercial sector in the past 15 years
-What strengths do you think LPFM stations have that commercial radio doesn’t?
- Intense focus on localism
- far fewer barriers to entry
- a focus on service, community and communication rather than professionalism for its own sake
- the opportunity for broadcasters to learn their craft and ‘grow up in public’
- the opportunity to experiment and try new formats
- the ability to be inclusive (compare the number of DJs on KFM with the number on ZM)
-And the weaknesses?
- unpredictability of long term stability
- value is usually intangible rather than fiscal
- no protective legislation
-Do you see LPFM stations as a viable threat to survey figures?
Not individually in any real measurable sense. I’m highly skeptical of survey results anyway. People celebrating when they move up half a percent, or losing their jobs when they go down two. Remember the margin of error for commercial broadcasters is measured in thousands of listeners. Plus or minus 3%, give or take.
While ‘Others’ takes up a fairly significant chunk of the survey, there’s quite a number of higher powered stations out there that don’t buy into the results. It might be more interesting to find out how many of those listen to Access Radio, for instance. I have no way of backing this up, but I bet Planet FM’s weekly cumulative audience exceeds the sum total of listenership to all LPFM stations in Auckland. Remember too that public radio is not even included in those figures.
An LPFM station that claims to know how many listeners it has is either lying, deluded, or has spent way too much money finding out. Any decent LPFM radio station is far more concerned with how much the people who do listen appreciate what they do. While more is better, they’re interested in meeting a need or serving a community of interest or a small geograpically defined area. Whereas the commercial stations are more concerned with a head count to use when selling to advertisers.
If large commercial broadcasters are worried about Low Power FM broadcasters stealing their audience, then the Low Power FM broadcasters aren’t their real problem.
– Are you happy with the current state of the General User Radio License?
I’m absolutely delighted with it. New Zealand is the only place on the planet where any citizen that wishes to do so can simply start a radio station. That’s really important to remember. So whatever we have is miles ahead of whatever anywhere else has. That said, there’s always room to grow – and I think now that the guys from Spectrum Management are actively consulting with the Society of Low Power FM Broadcasters, things are heading in the right direction.
– Thank you so much for your help.
No problem. Hope that’ll do.