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Radio Simulcast Fight Could Provide Hint at New FCC Majority’s Plans

According to a Thursday report in InsideRadio, an early test for a new Democrat-controlled Federal Communications Commission on how it will treat radio regulations may come not over a hot-button issue like radio ownership, but rather the arcane Radio Duplication Rule. That is because the decision to abolish the rule limiting station simulcasts was made along party-lines, and there is now a pending petition before the FCC to reverse course.

The Radio Duplication Rule, which first went on the books in 1964 and was last updated in 1992, was targeted by FCC Chair Ajit Pai as part of his media modernization initiative. It limited stations to airing up to 25% of total hours in an average broadcast week of duplicative programming when there is a 50% overlap of their principal signal contours or common ownership. The Commission struck down the rule on a 3-2 party-line vote last August.

The National Association of Broadcasters this week asked the Commission to reject a petition filed by a trio of advocacy groups. The NAB said the FCC correctly recognized there has been significant technological and marketplace changes since the Radio Duplication Rule was adopted decades ago. In an eight-page filing with the FCC, the trade group said the MusicFirst Coalition, the Future of Music Coalition and low-power advocacy REC Networks exhibited “a complete misrepresentation of the business fundamentals of the radio industry and the intense competition radio faces, and a total lack of understanding of the market value of AM/FM radio spectrum.” But potentially more damning, at least in terms of FCC rules regarding petitions for consideration, is that the NAB said the groups failed to present any new arguments in their appeal.

The proposal initially had the support of all five commissioners after a draft order proposed the change be limited to AM stations. But when Commissioner Brendan Starks convinced his Republican counterparts to sunset the rule for FMs too, the proposal lost the support of the two Democrats. Now as a reconsideration comes up, this week’s Senate runoff vote in Georgia will mean Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks will soon have a third Democratic vote once the Biden administration takes office.

The petition filed by MusicFirst, Future of Music Coalition and REC Networks seems tailor-made for such a review. In their joint petition for reconsideration, the group said what was adopted was “highly problematic both substantively and procedurally” and should be overturned. That included a final decision that applied the change to stations regardless of which band they are on, despite initially only including AM in the draft order released prior to the vote. The group said that violated the Administrative Procedure Act. They also said the rule change will lead to more programming duplication, giving listeners a less diverse radio dial.

If the FCC chooses to reverse course, it could mean that any broadcaster that started simulcasting stations would need to break those combinations apart. But it is not clear how many stations, if any, began duplicating their programming on stations because of the rule’s elimination.

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