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What is Zonecasting?

An Opportunity Editorial by Loris Taylor

A new frontier in radio broadcasting, called zonecasting, is on the horizon. Recently, FCC Commissioners Carr and Starks lauded Chairwoman Rosenworcel's circulation of an order to address the FCC's consideration of zonecasting for FM stations. But what exactly is zonecasting, and why does it matter to the public?

Zonecasting allows FM broadcasters to tailor programming and advertisements to different parts of their market using FM booster stations operating on the same channel as their primary signal. Theoretically, a station could simultaneously broadcast distinct commercials to varying neighborhoods within its service area. While this innovation has garnered support from some smaller broadcasters, others vehemently oppose it. So why the controversy, and why should the public care?

Some broadcasters have raised technical concerns about potential interference and increased FM noise from multiple signals on the same channel. Despite assurances from proponents, skeptics argue that such a system could exacerbate existing challenges in maintaining signal quality.

Then, there are economic implications at play. Many radio stations rely heavily on local advertising and underwriting revenue to sustain their operations. Allowing larger stations to target specific areas within their market could encroach upon the advertising or underwriting dollars that smaller, community-focused stations depend on, potentially undermining radio localism.

Proponents of zonecasting argue that radio could compete more effectively with online platforms by offering targeted advertising. However, opponents question the feasibility of this, asserting that the strength of radio lies in its ability to reach broad audiences. They argue that dissecting the audience with zonecasting may not attract sufficient advertisers or underwriters to offset implementation costs.

In my opinion, zonecasting may not offer broadcasters the same level of audience targeting as digital media. Unlike online platforms that can track and use algorithms for user behavior and interests, radio's reach remains largely geographical. Slicing the audience into smaller segments may not necessarily translate to increased advertising or underwriting revenue if those segments are too small to attract buyer's interest.

The market model may not fit small Tribal stations that serve small, underserved populations in the U.S.'s rural heartlands. Small Tribal stations are the first informers about news, public affairs, and emergencies. Life-saving information must be timely, relevant, and consistent during disasters or emergencies. At Native Public Media, our goal has been to reduce the relay of emergency alerts and information, not add additional links to the broadcast chain. 

Don't get me wrong. Monetizing small stations is always a challenge. However, zonecasting may cost local communities more than they can afford to give up.

As the FCC prepares to decide on zonecasting, the debate intensifies. Will this innovation revolutionize radio advertising/underwriting or erode the tradition of broad, community-focused broadcasting? The public should pay attention, as the outcome could shape the future of radio and its role in local communities. What do you think?


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