Damaged transmitter delays license renewal for Houston’s KPFT

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Houston Pacifica station KPFT-FM is preparing to ask the FCC for a third extension on its license renewal, a delay resulting from transmitter damage caused by a lightning strike two years ago.

The station, part of the financially troubled Pacifica network, has been struggling to raise funds to replace the transmitter. It has operated at half power since March 2012 and is pursuing its third Special Temporary Authority from the FCC. By failing to operate at full power for so long, the station puts itself at risk of  FCC fines.

KPFT General Manager Duane Bradley said the internal divisions plaguing Pacifica aren’t helping. “It’s been difficult in the Pacifica world of political shenanigans to affect a campaign locally,” he said, referring to KPFT’s efforts to raise money.

Replacing the transmitter would cost $200,000, almost as much as the $280,000 the station must raise in its next pledge drive to cover regular operational costs. The station has approached major donors about the hefty cost of a new transmitter. Meanwhile, its financial challenges are compounded by a freeze on CPB funding for Pacifica stations, imposed when the Pacifica Foundation failed to resolve financial problems identified in a 2012 audit.

“We’ve done everything we can at the local level, and we’re effectively being hamstrung by our sister stations . . . who have not responded to the request for information for us to get CPB funding,” Bradley said.

According to FCC records, KPFT last received a CPB community service grant in 2010 when its $172,390 grant  included an extra $15,916 for stabilization. In 2009, KPFT’s CSG totaled $160,000.

Beyond the financial challenges, Bradley also cited “the pall of negativity around Pacifica” as an obstacle for KPFT. The foundation’s board has been locked in a battle with Summer Reese, former executive director, over her firing in March. In addition, Pacifica  has called upon its stations to raise funds for national operations, he said.

The FCC may not be willing to give KPFT much of a break for broadcasting at reduced power, said Ernest Sanchez, a communications attorney who represents public broadcasters. “There is a precedent where some stations have limped along for years,” he said. “But, if it’s not caused by some kind of natural disaster and is rather just a matter of not having the money, that is a weak position to be in.”

The commission is unlikely to go as far as revoking KPFT’s license, Sanchez predicted, but it could levy fines or grant a renewal covering a shorter period.

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