This is an extensive process but I will touch on the main points (keeping in mind, this applies to commercial FM stations only):
- You must petition the FCC to add an "allotment" to the community. The FCC is required by the Communications Act of 1934 to maintain a fair distribution of broadcast licenses. In order to achieve that in the FM and TV services, the FCC uses a "Table of Allotments". In order to be added to the table, a community must meet certain minimum qualifications such as community services, a post office, etc. The FCC also looks at whether there are already allotments for that city of license. Allotments that are proposed for an urbanized area or have the potential to put at least 50% of its protected service contour over an urbanized area are subject to even more scruitny. Of course, the proposed allotment must also meet all minimum distance separation requirements and any site chosen must put a 70 dBu "city grade" contour over the city of license. You can file a Form 301 and Form 159 as well as pay a filing fee of $2,685 (as of 8/2015) and at the same time file a Petition to Amend the FM Table of Allotments. You will need to specify the community, the channel and the channel class (A, C3, etc.). You must ask for the highest class possible at that location.
- Wait for the Commission to docket the petition for proposed rulemaking. The FCC will then issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and assign your allotment request with a docket number. During a 30-day period of time, any other organization can file a counter-proposal to your proposed allotment. In the event of counter-proposals, the FCC will look use a priority system policy to determine which is the most preferential arrangement of allotments. If the FCC decides that the proposed allotment will serve the public interest and otherwise qualfiies, the FCC will grant the petition and add the city, channel and class to the table of allotments. This does not open a filing window for the allotment.
- Wait for the pre-auction and then make an up-front payment. At a later time (which could be years later), the FCC will announce all of the vacant allotments that are auction eligible. There will be a window for all applicants who are interested in filing for certain allotments to file a short form and submit an up-front payment. The up-front payment is based on the minimum price the Commission sets based on station class and population served. If any other entities are interested in that allotment and they make their up-front payments, then that allotment goes to auction. If there is no competition for the allotment, then you will be awarded the allotment and your up-front payment gets refunded (you must ask for the refund). It is important to note that being the petitioner for the allotment does not give you any priority or preference if the allotment goes up for competitive bidding.
- Participate in the auction. If the channel goes to auction, you will need to participate in the auction. During the auction, there are multiple rounds. Normally, 3 per day where each applicant can increase their bids until everyone stops bidding. The group that bids the highest is the winner. Keep in mind that bidding credits are available to new entrants who have limited or no other commercial broadcast holdings.
- Pay the difference owed. If you win the auction and the amount is higher than the up-front payment you made, then you must wire transfer the additional funds required. Once that is taken care of, you will be able to file a long-form application and will eventually get a 3-year construction permit. If you were not the highest bidder, you will need to ask for a refund of your up-front payment.
At this time, the FCC is not accepting any petitions to amend the table of allotments for new "drop-in" stations. They are only accepting petitions from existing stations needing to move.
It is important to remember that operating a commercial broadcast station comes with many responsibilities. Most change applications require a fee (which can go into the thousands). Stations must also pay an annual regulatory fee which is based on the class of station and market size. These fees can range anywhere from $1,075 for a class A station that serves a population of less than 25,000 (based on 60dBu contour) to $17,175 for a higher powered station serving populations of 6 million or more.