Tales of the MXed:
Not so long ago in Lake Placid ...
The shouting seems to be over now, but for a few days last month the hottest fight in chilly upstate New York was a battle for 91.7 MHz in Lake Placid.
North Country Public Radio, based in Canton, 80 miles northwest of the resort village, challenged WAMC/Northeast Public Radio, 140 miles to the south in Albany, over WAMC’s application to broadcast from Lake Placid on the same frequency where North Country has operated a translator for two decades. In October, when the FCC opened a weeklong filing period for noncommercial FM channels, 91.7 was the only one available for full-power broadcasting in the little Adirondacks village.
On Dec. 20, six days after North Country’s defense hit its airwaves and the local press, the stations agreed on the basics of a settlement favoring North Country. The agreement was still pending last week.
Quieter pushing and pulling for spectrum is underway elsewhere. In Washington State’s far northwest corner, Seattle rivals KUOW and KPLU averted conflict over competing applications for 90.3 MHz in Bellingham, where both stations now have translators. KPLU said it would withdraw its application, because winning would have taken away KUOW’s translator channel, depriving the public of that station’s programs. Better that they both remain on the air, station execs decided, even if KPLU stays with a lower-power translator.
As in Lake Placid and Bellingham, hundreds of public, community and religious stations find themselves competing for the relatively few unclaimed channels in populated areas. So far the FCC hasn’t published a list of mutually exclusive, “MXed” for short — conflicts between applications that must be resolved before the commission grants channels, but applicants can find out who their competition is.
Pubcasters are typically competing with five to ten other applicants, and some face dozens, said Rolfe Larson, project coordinator of Public Radio Capital, the nonprofit advisor and broker that helps public radio find and finance signal expansion. “In almost every case a public or community broadcaster is also competing with another public or community broadcaster and also a religious applicant.”
“The largest one I have has 30 in an MX group,” said John Crigler, attorney with Garvey Schubert and Barer, referring to one of his pubradio clients. Some regions, particularly the Midwest and the West Coast, have “daisy chains” of MXed applications, in which bids for frequencies in adjacent communities are mutually stalled across a wide geographic area, he said. He has heard of “several groups of 20 or 30 MXed applications.”
The Lake Placid clash, between two operators of extensive translator networks led by two famously forceful personalities, stands out because of the dispute’s unusually combative tone.
- North Country Public Radio, based at Saint Lawrence University in Canton, defines its service area as the Adirondack Mountains of northern New York, covered in part by low-power translators that repeat its main signal for remote communities. One of the seven apps it filed last fall proposed to upgrade its Lake Placid translator to full power.
- In the region’s jigsaw geography, WAMC/Northeast Public Radio is closer to Vermont, western Massachusetts and Connecticut than to New York City or Buffalo, and its signals reach into seven states. It applied for the Lake Placid frequency among several others, proposing to extend its signal into locales as distant as southwestern New Hampshire and bedroom towns of Connecticut. President Alan Chartock said WAMC’s Lake Placid application responded to requests from listeners to strengthen its signal into the village.
A third applicant, Northeast Gospel Broadcasting, also went after the open Lake Placid channel.
In mid-December, North Country Station Manager Ellen Rocco alerted the station’s supporters and regional news outlets that its Lake Placid service was jeopardized by WAMC’s expansion. Her engineer had discovered the WAMC application in the FCC’s database of pending applications, and she was pushing to work out agreements with other competitors before the FCC’s Jan. 7 deadline for settlements among MXed applicants, she said.
The situation in Lake Placid was different from North Country’s other MX cases, where applicants were working amicably to reach a settlement, Rocco told Current. “This is a very unusual situation where a neighboring broadcaster is threatening a service we’ve had on the air for 21 years.”
When Rocco went public, she issued a news release denouncing WAMC’s competing application as “predatory” and accused the station of wasting limited public radio resources “to destroy NCPR’s service in Lake Placid and in other Adirondack communities that rely on the Lake Placid transmitter.”
“We are not vacating 91.7 after 21 years without giving it everything we’ve got,” Rocco said. She criticized WAMC for complicating the MXed applications of pubcasters in three other states.
“It’s one thing to be a regional service that serves a defined and connected region,” said Rocco, who questions the value of WAMC’s expansion across such a broad region. “What is the intent and at what point does a regional station serve such a large and unclearly defined geography that it’s more like a national service than a regional or local station?”
Both Rocco and Chartock took swipes at each other as the feud played out in local papers. “Why any station would expend scarce public resources to displace an extremely successful, highly service-oriented public radio service in a core community of its coverage area to bring in their own signal in is beyond me,” Rocco argued in the Schenectady Daily Gazette Dec. 14.
“[W]e have been invited by many, many people who think we are a superior radio station to come into the Lake Placid area who are used to getting our signal and who cannot under the present circumstances,” Chartock told the same reporter.
“I believe that there’s room for everybody,” Chartock said in an interview last week with Current. He admires Minnesota Public Radio’s strategy, which has led to affiliated operations in Los Angeles and Miami. “I admire that because I think the listener gets more choices that way, and it drives us all to be better.”
But Chartock himself recently felt crowded by neighboring pubcaster WFCR in Amherst, Mass., which began serving western Massachusetts last year through added translators. Chartock criticized WFCR for expanding westward last year and later for leasing a 50,000-watt AM station in Springfield, Mass., from Clear Channel Communications. WFCR turned the station into an NPR News outlet and agreed to let Clear Channel sell underwriting for some blocks of airtime and keep the revenue.
“I was critical about their getting in bed with Clear Channel Radio, which is a very dangerous precedent,” Chartock said. Otherwise, he welcomes the competition from WFCR, he said.
North Country’s vigorous defense of its Lake Placid frequency had the intended effect: WAMC agreed Dec. 20 to withdraw its app. Under the settlement agreement, still under discussion last week, WAMC would bring its signal to Lake Placid via a translator on another frequency and wouldn’t compete for the full-power license that North Country would get. North Country must now try to work out a settlement with the third Lake Placid applicant, Northeast Gospel Broadcasting.
“This is now behind us, and I am delighted this will work out well for both of us,” Chartock said. “We have always believed, ‘Let a thousand flowers bloom’ and ‘Competition raises all boats,’” Chartock said.
“What we don’t want here is a monopolistic practice where people should stay out because others are there already. That’s like saying there should only be one commercial station to a market.”
Competition among multiple stations in a market is a long tradition in public radio, said Mark Vogelzang, president of Vermont Public Radio, who has MXed applications with both North Country and WAMC. When the FCC offers a rare opportunity to build new stations, this kind of conflict occurs, he said. “With a little forethought and planning, these things can be avoided, but I don’t think that happened in Lake Placid.”
Rocco had a different take: “It’s a good opening point for a system discussion about good behavior being behavior that truly best serves listeners in communities around the country.” Ultimately, it’s not about two competing stations, but “a glaring example of how stations can act badly,” she said.
Web page posted Jan. 21, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current Publishing Committee