FCC Approves ZoneCasting for FM Broadcasters

NRB | May 31, 2024 | Industry News

Should broadcasters be permitted to make use of technology that would allow stations to air a certain amount of hyper-geo-targeted content different from the primary station? For now, the FCC says yes, but caps the time at three minutes. 

Last month, the FCC gave the green light to a long-pending request by GeoBroadcast Solutions (GBS), the technology company that introduced ZoneCasting to the market. Their geocasting technology allows FM boosters to hyper-target specific programming that differs from the normal broadcast on the primary stations. Historically, this kind of technology was used to mitigate gaps in a station’s coverage caused by terrain, but its use has been limited due to concerns about interference between boosters and the main station’s signal. 

The FCC has unanimously decided to let the technology move forward, with Commissioners Geoffrey Starks and Brendan Carr expressing a free-market rationale for doing so.

“If entrepreneurs want to test new business models and deploy new technologies, the FCC’s rules shouldn’t stand in the way,” wrote the bipartisan pair in a joint statement.

While some say that this step allows radio stations to better compete with Big Tech by imitating how online competitors use geo-targeting, others say it threatens to drive the traditional advertising model into the ground. Industry groups also object that the addition of more signals to the FM band will cause interference because of the close proximity of the signals. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) contends that “The record unequivocally shows that ZoneCasting cannot be implemented without materially degrading signal quality” and that the technology does not meet technical standards. 

There are also concerns that ZoneCasting will have a negative effect on localism. If a large station in a major hub begins selling hyper-targeted ads on the outskirts of the city, smaller local stations will be forced into competition with much larger players. For example, New Jersey broadcasters have raised alarms that New York and Philadelphia stations would be able to use this technology to “target advertisers who now buy advertising on New Jersey stations to reach local consumers because rates on the big city stations are cost prohibitive for reaching a targeted audience.”

Christian programmers have taken differing views on the issue. Salem Media Group joined several other broadcasting groups on a comment arguing that ZoneCasting was evaluated under faulty field testing and would force “broad economic harms” on the radio industry. In the same month, Salem radio host Hugh Hewitt wrote a letter to Carr expressing concern that Zonecasting “could do significant and potentially permanent financial harm to the radio industry, while lining the pockets of the Big Tech platforms that actively engage in political censorship.”

In contrast, the proposal has had the support of the Educational Media Foundation (EMF), who holds the largest number of FM signals in the United States. In a 2020 letter to the FCC, EMF described a positive experience with similar technology by GBS, writing that “providing the option to FM broadcasters will strengthen many stations that are struggling to compete with other media outlets who are able to geographically target specific segments of [its] audience.”

Currently, the FCC is assessing permanent service rules for implementing the technology, with reply comments due June 17. FM broadcasters are now able to apply to be able to provide the localized content through boosters. NRB will continue to monitor ZoneCasting adoption and possible ad market impact on small, local, and independent broadcasters.

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