Defend frequencies, present and future, urge radio managers

In Dayton, a religiocaster is on the selling side

By Steve Behrens

In a spectrum-market turnabout, it was a public radio station that bought 88.1 MHz in Dayton, Ohio, and it was a religious broadcaster who sold.

With Strauss's Zarathustra fanfare looming portentously, Dayton Public Radio, WDPR-FM, switched frequencies during a pledge drive June 6 to its first 24-hour channel after buying it for $500,000 from religious broadcaster WQRP. A local bank financed the deal with an unsecured, $450,000 loan at the prime rate, said General Manager William L. Combs.

WDPR's lack of 24-hour service was the top complaint from members, according to Combs. With a new full-time channel and a new transmitter, WDPR will also greatly improve its coverage in the growing southern part of its area.

Combs expects to be criticized for paying for the channel. "We think it's more than reasonable for a 24-hour frequency," he said.

"The challenge is letting people know we're at 88.1, not 89.5."

Station leaders had noticed last year that proprietors of noncommercial FM frequencies were thinking higher prices. "We thought it was a good time to approach a local religious broadcaster," Combs told Current.

Dayton volunteers organized WDPR in 1981 and bought a half share in 89.5 from religious broadcaster WQRP (confusingly named Southwestern Ohio Public Radio), putting itself on the air part-time in 1985. The religious broadcaster donated the rest of the schedule to the Dayton public school system. WDPR had early morning, evenings and nights, and the school system had weekdays, 9:15 to 4:30.

Then, last month--after developing its service and boosting its power from 200 to 6,000 watts--WDPR completed the purchase of full-time channel 88.1 MHz from the same religious broadcaster, according to Combs. As part of the deal, they're swapping frequencies; the religious licensee will now share time with the school system.

WDPR had searched down many alleys to find a better frequency and even checked the price for a commercial frequency, but it couldn't afford $2.5 million, says Combs.

After a religious broadcaster's newsmaking $10 million offer for Washington station WDCU-FM a year ago, Combs learned in a casual conversation with WQRP's operator, Harold Parshall, that he'd be willing to swap frequencies for a price.

WDPR has also expanded to the north. It found a channel in Greenville, and launched 50,000-watt sister station WDPG in 1994.

Originally published in Current, June 22, 1998

By Jacqueline Conciatore

Some in public radio are calling for a centralized response to religious broadcasting chains' voracious acquisition of the remaining noncommercial spectrum. By one count early this year, five chains had pending applications for nearly 200 stations and 700 translators, which they hope to add to their satellite networks.

A few public radio managers asked NPR at the Public Radio Conference last month to lead an effort to identify and secure unused frequencies before they all disappear. Others say there's a pressing need for some entity acting on behalf of the system to track FCC filings for new stations or translators, as a defensive move against erosion of stations' existing signal coverage.

It's generally agreed that few noncommercial frequencies are not already taken. Those that remain are in the boonies. A four-year engineering process reportedly has just identified channel space in Santa Cruz, Calif., and there's a new Cape and Islands station licensed now to WGBH, Boston, but those are among the last remaining frequencies in relatively populated areas, says Marc Hand, a Station Resource Group consultant who's working on ways to expand public radio's delivery capacity. Any decision to go after excess spectrum is in part a "question as to what degree NPR and its members have an interest in Medicine Bow, Wyo.," says Jon Schwartz, NPR Board member and head of NPR's strategic planning effort.

What's more, trying to identify all the remaining expansion opportunities would be a significant engineering and resource challenge.

But there is reason for stations to make themselves aware of spectrum availability and activity as a defensive tactic, says John Crigler, communications attorney with Haley, Bader and Potts in Arlington, Va. "Just because there may not be enough room for a big station doesn't mean somebody else won't come in, lay a translator in or even squeeze a class A station in the holes. It's happening all the time, [and it's happening] with the national religious organizations in a pretty systematic way."

As the FCC develops a system to auction commercial frequencies, it has frozen the flow of applications for new commercial outlets. "That has had a gold-rush effect on noncommercial frequencies," says Crigler.

In February, he looked at the filings of five religious broadcasters he knew to be particularly active. "The numbers are pretty amazing," he says. Together, the broadcasters American Family, Bible Broadcasting, Calvary Chapel, Educational Media, and Moody Bible had licenses for 27 stations. But they had applications pending for 193 full-service stations and 693 translators.

All of this activity translates into potential for encroachment of public radio stations' existing coverage areas. "In a lot of markets, public radio frequencies are nibbled away at the edges," says Hand. Though new stations can't interfere with signals inside designated contours, existing stations can lose listeners outside the protected areas--although the law does provide some protection against encroachment by translators, says Crigler.

He and Hand say a centralized effort to monitor FCC filings would be worthwhile. "We help our clients become aware of what's going on that could affect their station or preclude opportunities to upgrade," says Crigler. "What's missing is anybody looking at the big picture, to see what's going on across the country."

Competing apps a headache

The FCC used to decide between competing ("mutually exclusive") reserved noncommercial license applications by applying set criteria to determine which broadcaster would provide the greater public service. But courts threw out the standards, and today the FCC leaves it to competitors to haggle over who gets the prize, sometimes requiring them to share frequencies if one doesn't buy out the other. That may change, says Allen Myers of the FCC's mass media unit. "We're working on how to handle several applicants for the same facilities" on the reserved side, he said. There should be "something" out in the next few months, he said, stopping short of promising a rulemaking. The commission may consider a lottery system, he said.

The lack of comparative criteria opens the door for filings by extortion-minded applicants, some say. "There is great incentive, in my opinion, for spurious applications to be filed with the expectation of being bought off," says Dennis Haarsager of KWSU, Pullman, one of those broadcasters who raised the spectrum issue at the PRC. Says one station manager who recently filed for a new frequency: "When you apply for a station, and another entity goes in to the FCC and Xeroxes your application and changes [a few necessary lines], that's good evidence they weren't planning to do this on their own." Ron Kramer, executive director of KSOR, Ashland, Ore., wrote a Current commentary last September in which he complained that a religious organization filed a mutually exclusive application and then "offered to 'get out of our way' for a five-figure 'settlement.'"

Myers says it is legal to co-opt uncopyrighted paperwork. Years ago, FCC applicants--burned once--got into the habit of copyrighting their engineering results. As a result, the copying problem subsided and applicants stopped seeking copyright protection. Now the FCC is seeing a "spate" of copying, he says. "It's perfectly legal under our rules."

It's not legal to file a spurious application, however. Says Myers: "Any applicant must certify they have not filed for the purposes of carrying out the agreement." Meaning, they must promise the FCC they're not applying just to make a deal. An applicant can give money to a competing applicant, but FCC rules say no broadcaster can receive more money than that broadcaster invested in the process. (Congress told the FCC it could waive the rule on the commercial side, for a period, which the FCC did.) The FCC has never punished anyone for breaching that rule because no one's ever presented documented evidence, Myers says.

On the overall issue of heightened vigilance about spectrum acquisitions by religious broadcasters, Myers says he wishes the system would "cool it." "Public radio has to understand it is no different under our regulations than any other nonprofit educational entity. As long as they meet the requirements of our rules, being a nonprofit educational organization, they have a right to have a station." But pubcasters say they just want to get in the game. "There's shelf space out there we could use for public radio and the door is closing very quickly," says Haarsager.

His and other broadcasters' suggestion that NPR take the lead on securing spectrum may not be feasible--NPR under its own bylaws can't own stations. But Crigler and Hand say some entities such as the regional organizations, NFCB, or SRG could track applications and possibly i.d. expansion opportunities.

Schwartz says NPR's more likely role would be helping prevent loss of public radio stations, as happened with WDCU in Washington last year. The station's cash-strapped university licensee sold the license to C-SPAN for $13 million. SRG already offers brokering services to stations that want to buy outlets or enter into Local Management Agreements with their university licensees. Schwartz says NPR might appropriately act as broker or adviser to institutionally licensed stations.



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Earlier news: A high bid for WDCU-FM in Washington, D.C., trips the alarm for public radio, 1997.


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