Coming of public radio to rural areas can be rough on both listeners and broadcasters

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With about 90 percent of the population covered by its signals, public radio has reached all the ”easy” regions and is now filling in the gaps, usually in less-populated areas. Even when there’s money to add repeating transmitters, however, there are often technical glitches.

The furor has died down somewhat in recent weeks, but when public radio first came to Chillicothe, Mo., in August 1993, hundreds of people wanted it to go back where it came from.

In an area where households without cable were accustomed to picking up Kansas City Royals games and other programming on weak signals from TV stations 70 miles away, the new 100 kw FM signal was so much closer that it blasted the ballgames right off the tube.

Though the outrage was new to Chillicothe, similar cases of ”blanketing interference” often had occurred and subsided elsewhere and will arise again in other remote areas as public radio (or kind of station) fills the gaps in the national map of FM service.

Chillicothe was one of those unserved areas until KXCV, up in Maryville, got a federal equipment grant to put the KRNW transmitter on the air.

Soon, angry locals were saying they’d like to go up on the hill and take down that transmitter, says TV repairman Jim Shriner, who got quite a bit of business from the problem.

It was a tough period for Station Manager Sharon Bonnett. Instead of celebrating the advent of public radio, the loudest voices in Chillicothe were demanding that she fix their TV sets. Her staff in Maryville set out to do so, investigating many complaints and handing out more than 100 notch filters that ”trap out” the unwanted FM signal.

Under a 10-year-old FCC rule, a station ”must satisfy all complaints” about blanketing interference for a year, within a certain area — a radius of 1.5 miles, in KRNW’s case.

”We’re making absolutely every effort to do more than what the rules and regulations state,” Bonnett says, and she anticipates that the commission will grant KRNW’s license when the year is up in August.

She believes some of the TV interference comes from atmospheric phenomena, and in other cases, the FCC won’t hold the station responsible because the TV sets use antenna booster amplifiers that magnify unwanted FM signals as well as the much-wanted TV signals on nearby frequencies.

Nationwide, the FCC is monitoring 26 to 28 cases of blanketing interference, says Bob Greenberg, assistant chief of the FCC’s FM Branch. In the worst situations, the FM signal is so overpowering that it bypasses the TV set’s tuner and penetrates right into the circuitry. Most stations can avoid the problem by siting their transmitters close enough to population, but not too close.

Others have to mount a persistent public-education campaign and hand out filters or traps, as KHCC of Hutchinson, Kan., did when it put its first repeater in north central Kansas. And as KETR in Commerce, Tex., did when it raised power to 100 kw a decade ago.

Only a few stations end up in trouble. One may be KOKS, a noncommercial religious station in Poplar Bluff at the other end of Missouri. Charged with blanketing interference among other violations, KOKS was fined $10,000 last July and given only a one-year license, Greenberg says. The operators of KOKS declined to discuss the charges for this story.

Doris Smith will talk, however. She lives so close to the KOKS tower that she receives the syndicated preachers on her telephones as well as the TV set. Starting in 1989, she and a friend collected 1,200 signatures around the country to petition the FCC for relief.

Up north, the frustrated viewers of Chillicothe also had their champions. One was retired Ford-dealer service manager Leroy Dominique, who got 500 names on a petition and briefly considered suing public radio. But after learning how much a lawsuit would cost and consulting with the local Motorola dealer, Dominique has no further plans to oppose KRNW. ”I guess they’re legally within their rights,” he says. ”I suppose we’ve been fighting a losing battle all along.” Still, he’s upset that a number of families — some without access to cable — have had to spend hundreds of dollars on new antenna boosters or replacing flat antenna wire with shielded coaxial cable, just to keep a decent TV picture.

The odd thing is that Dominique has a satellite dish, and doesn’t much need to pick up distant terrestrial signals, observes Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune reporter Greg O’Rear.

”He’s your basic Midwest kind of guy,” explains O’Rear, ”and he doesn’t like to see this kind of thing going on for his neighbors.”