Originally published in Current, March 28, 2005
By Mike Janssen
Advocates for low-power FM stations have asked the FCC to investigate three Idaho-based religious broadcasters that applied for more than 4,000 FM translator licenses, received more than 1,000 and resold some of them for profit.
The petition filed March 9 by Media Access Project objects to a “massive trafficking scheme” by Radio Assist Ministry, Edgewater Broadcasting and World Radio Link. Based in Twin Falls, Idaho, the companies have boards composed entirely of the same three people: Clark Parrish, Earl Williamson and Diana Atkin.
Including these permits, the FCC has now approved 3,300 translator applications from the March 2003 window, almost as many translators as were operating before it opened the window—potentially squeezing out many LPFM broadcasters.
Within days after receiving MAP’s petition, the FCC announced a six-month freeze as part of an evaluation of rules governing LPFM stations, which compete with translators for unused frequencies. The agency did not cite the Idaho broadcasters’ case but voiced concerns that granting so many translator permits could crowd out LPFM stations from many areas.
Edgewater and Radio Assist Ministry put in almost a third of the 13,000 applications for translator construction permits filed during the 2003 window, according to the petition. MAP presented information culled from FCC databases and other publicly available sources charging that the broadcasters, through World Radio Link, gave away and resold permits to other religious broadcasters.
The case is the latest example of religious and secular noncoms butting heads in the pursuit of spectrum. “It used to be built into the etiquette that no one ever applied for more than they could use,” says John Crigler, a communications attorney uninvolved in the dispute. “I think those days are gone.” New software has made it much easier for would-be broadcasters to locate frequencies, he adds.
As MAP acknowledged, the Idahoans did not break any specific FCC rule. But they argued that the Idaho trio’s permit transfers violate general FCC policies and merit an investigation of the broadcasters, an examination of the agency’s anti-trafficking safeguards and a “complete freeze” on the granting of translator permits.
The high interest in translators is “the single greatest threat to the future of low-power FM,” says Andrew Jay Schwartzman, MAP’s president. “Many other noncommercial stations would be amazed if they took a look and discovered how many translators have moved in on areas that they might well consider to be important for their growth.”
If the Idaho groups are stockpiling permits to sell, they have a lot of inventory remaining. According to MAP, Edgewater Broadcasting and Radio Assist Ministry have received about 1,000 translator permits and applied to transfer or give away 86 around the country.
Unabashed about their intentions, they set up shop at a recent National Religious Broadcasters conference. An exhibition catalog excerpt attached to MAP’s petition listed World Radio Link as representing “the two largest filers of FM translator applications in the FCC’s most recent FM filing window.”
Radio Assist Ministry and Edgewater Broadcasting, the catalog continued, “are making available for acquisition hundreds of these FM translator station construction permits to existing or new entrant Christian broadcasters throughout the country.”
Parrish, a board member of the three companies, acknowledges that “where we considered it appropriate and in agreement with our purposes we have made some translators available for acquisition to others.”
Such reselling, MAP argued, “violates the longstanding interpretation of the public-interest standard that requires an applicant to genuinely intend to provide service, rather than simply seek to convert a free license for public spectrum to private gain.” But, as Parrish points out, MAP acknowledged the broadcasters broke no specific laws.
It’s true the FCC has no rule barring the sale of licenses, says Crigler, “but there certainly is an assumption that if you file for the frequency, you mean to use it.”
An attorney for the Idaho broadcasters asked the FCC to dismiss MAP’s petition and accused the public interest law firm of “wild speculation impugning the character, motives and methods of the Ministries and their principals.”
MAP based its charges on FCC database findings compiled by REC Networks, a group that provides engineering data to LPFM stations and applicants. The petition was filed on behalf of REC as well as the Prometheus Radio Project, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ and other groups.
FCC freezes CPs, asks for feedback
Eight days after MAP’s filing, the FCC froze the granting of new FM translator construction permits for which informal “short-form” applications were filed.
The commission noted that the hundreds of translator filings “have had a significant preclusive impact on future LPFM licensing opportunities.” Many applications, it added, came from “a relatively small number of nonlocal filers without any apparent connection to the communities specified in the applications.”
Why the freeze, then? During the six months, the public will weigh in
on a conundrum—whether filings for LPFMs deserve special consideration
over translator filings.
LPFM advocates say their stations, which often provide local programming, should receive favorable treatment over translators that retransmit distant signals, often via satellite.
But the public radio stations that use translators to reach remote audiences might object to taking a back seat to LPFMs.
The FCC questioned which LPFMs might deserve such treatment and which translators should get special protection. It also asked how to handle its backlog of pending translator applications.
The considerations are part of a Second Order and Reconsideration and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking reassessing some rules governing LPFM. Since unveiling the class of noncommercial ministations five years ago, the agency has entertained suggestions about how to improve it.
In February the agency convened a forum of LPFM operators and in the Second Order addressed many of the issues the forum raised. For example, participants said the 18-month lifespan of an LPFM construction permit often allows too little time to build stations. The FCC asked whether the permit’s life should be extended to three years and in the meantime empowered its Media Bureau to grant extensions case by case.
The commission also asked whether it should relax a rule that requires an LPFM to wait for an infrequent filing window if it wishes to swap out more than half of its board members. In the meantime, the Second Order allows LPFMs to request waivers from the Media Bureau.
Finally, the FCC asked whether an LPFM operator should be allowed to transfer its license to another entity or run more than one station. Both are currently prohibited, though the commission allows them for translators.
In addition to requesting comments, the Second Order introduced several small and immediate changes that will give LPFMs some relief. A 100-watt LPFM now can move its transmitter up to 5.6 kilometers with a “minor change” application. Some operators found the previous limit of 2 kilometers restrictive. And the FCC’s Media Bureau can now resolve frequency conflicts by opening settlement windows that let LPFM applicants suggest switches to undisputed channels.
The agency declined to allow LPFM broadcasters to use contour methodology to locate their transmitters, an alternative siting method that some operators argued would grant them more flexibility.
posted April 4, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee