As the FCC-ordered television channel repack proceeds, public radio stations are preparing for service disruptions and costly engineering work on their broadcast facilities.
Legislation pending in Congress could bring some relief, and pubcasters in Portland have helped make the case for it by describing the mounting costs and operational challenges for All Classical Portland and KMHD, a jazz station managed by Oregon Public Broadcasting and owned by Mt. Hood Community College. Both Oregon public broadcasters face expenses of at least $150,000 to relocate backup facilities for their Portland signals during repacking work that begins April 1.
On Tuesday, the House approved a bill that authorizes the FCC to increase the spectrum auction repack fund and reimburse FM radio stations that incur costs from the mandatory repack. A group of senators and representatives announced a bipartisan agreement on the FCC reauthorization bill last Friday. Previously, only TV stations were eligible for repack funds.
The National Association of Broadcasters estimated that the repack could cost radio stations $50 million.
“I’m thrilled to hear that Congress is taking action to expand repacking reimbursement funds and include radio stations impacted by the TV repacking,” said OPB CEO Steve Bass after the bipartisan agreement was announced on Friday. But the funds may not come through soon enough to relieve financial pressure on OPB and All Classical Portland. “…[I]t will depend on the final bill provisions,” he said. “Regardless, though, it’s good news.”
Work to begin next month on the Sinclair and Nexstar-owned Sylvan Tower in Portland could force All Classical Portland and KMHD completely off the air for 10–12 hours daily for about six weeks, according to Bass.
The disruption “threatens the survival of our public radio service as well as the health of our cultural community and economy,” said Suzanne Nance, CEO of All Classical Portland.
Because KQAC and KMHD each have their primary and backup broadcast facilities on Sylvan Tower, there is no easy way to avoid service outages.
Nance and Bass wrote to key members of Congress, including Oregon Rep. Greg Walden (R), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, about the “significant detrimental effect” the repack will have on their stations. They also met with members of Congress or their staffs to request federal assistance for radio stations affected by the repack.
As a follow-up to last year’s spectrum auction, hundreds of television stations are being repacked to channels 2-36. Radio broadcasters that share transmission facilities with TV stations will be affected by the technical work. The FCC’s timeline for completing the repack extends through mid-2020.
As the first phase of the repack began last May, CPB released a report warning that 92 public radio stations that share towers with full-power TV stations or Class A TV stations would have to deal with a range of disruptions — from going off the air temporarily to losing their tower space.
The All Classical Portland station located on Sylvan Tower, 89.9 KQAC FM, delivers signals to 85 percent of the network’s total audience, according to Nance. With extended disruptions to that station, “our ability to raise operating funds on the air through donations and sponsorships is gone.” Significant time off air could cause listeners to stop tuning in, she added.
When All Classical Portland searched for an alternative location for its backup antenna, Nance learned that moving to it would cost more than $400,000 in capital and operating expenses. That’s more than 10 percent of the pubcaster’s FY17 revenue.
The station is raising money to pay for relocation through individual giving and foundation support, but faces a tight deadline. OPB and All Classical first learned about the extent of the repacking work on Sylvan Tower about six weeks ago, according to Bass. The start date, originally set for May 1, recently moved to April 1.
For KMHD, the cost of relocating its broadcast facilities would be an estimated $150,000, compared to the jazz station’s annual revenues of about $750,000.
Under the OPB’s management agreement for the jazz station, license-holder Mt. Hood Community College is responsible for repairs, maintenance and capitalization of new equipment, Bass said. The college is “not in a position” to take on those costs, he said.
“It’s actually a little more complicated than, do we just pull it out of our pocket or are they going to pay for it? We actually have to look at it in terms of where are we in our business relationship,” Bass said.
Some public radio managers whose stations will be affected by the repack aren’t as concerned about the coming disruptions.
WUWM in Milwaukee, Wis., shares a tower with a TV station that is being repacked, but GM Dave Edwards has a good relationship with its owners and management, he said. In recent years they have worked together to coordinate other upgrades.
Anticipating the forthcoming repack, WUWM installed a backup transmitter and antenna last year, Edwards said. The new facility awaits FCC approval, which he expects to come before the repack.
“When we do have to go off the air because of work that Channel 6 is doing … we can still serve the community with a really good signal,” Edwards said. “That wasn’t always the case.”
When Prairie Public Broadcasting’s TV station in Minot, N.D., undergoes its repack, the technical work will require some disruption to the pubcaster’s radio service, said CEO John Harris. Radio listeners will be more inconvenienced by the repack, he said, because a greater percentage of them tune into over the air broadcasts than the public broadcaster’s TV viewers. But the repack is scheduled for late summer, giving Prairie Public plenty of time to inform its audience of outages, he said.
Update: This story was updated to note the House’s approval of the FCC reauthorization bill.