Something in the Air

Lookout Mountain is a hot spot in the battle over broadcast emissions.

So what's the rub? West's high opinion of Squaw Mountain isn't universally shared. Clear Channel's Lambiotte agrees that the roads to the site are good, but it's a 45-minute-plus commute from downtown Denver even when it's not rush hour, which makes it considerably less handy than Lookout Mountain when it comes to repair. "That's a long time when your station is quiet," he says.

And Lambiotte is even more bothered by a phenomenon known as shadowing. In laymen's terms: FM signals basically operate by line of sight, and because of the way the Front Range falls, signals from Squaw Mountain are more or less blocked from large portions of Jefferson County, including growing foothills communities like Ken Caryl. KYGO, which is almost always among the top-rated stations in Denver, gets around this flaw through the use of boosters that repeat the signal in various areas. But putting in such gadgets requires not only additional land acquisition but also zoning clearance -- the very thing that's proven to be such a nightmare for the broadcasters on Lookout Mountain.

West says these reservations are overstated: "Because of the mountainous terrain, there is no perfect broadcast site in Colorado. But our glass is half-full, not half-empty. We can solve all of these concerns."

Don't touch that dial: Clear Channel's Jack Lambiotte insists that emission fears are overstated.
Don't touch that dial: Clear Channel's Jack Lambiotte insists that emission fears are overstated.
Don't touch that dial: Clear Channel's Jack Lambiotte insists that emission fears are overstated.
John Johnston
Don't touch that dial: Clear Channel's Jack Lambiotte insists that emission fears are overstated.

Lambiotte isn't buying it. "We think our signal would stink," he says.

That leaves Eldorado, which is midway between Boulder and Golden, due west of Rocky Flats. It was recently purchased by Pinnacle Broadcasting, a Florida company that controls about 4,000 broadcasting sites nationwide, and Frank Lee, Pinnacle's vice president of sales, knows so little about it that he doesn't even have a sales pitch yet: "The situation is still under scrutiny by us," he says.

But a source knowledgeable about the area notes that it's the only spot that offers line-of-sight coverage to Denver, Golden and Boulder, and has been the home of adult-rock station KBCO since 1985.

Yet even though KBCO is owned by Clear Channel, Lambiotte sees no shortage of drawbacks to the site. Among his apprehensions: It's tough to get to because of dangerous roads that can only be traversed in all-terrain vehicles; it's ripe for development; there are power problems; and signals from there have shortcomings in key areas, including the Denver Tech Center.

And that's not to mention its proximity to the Table Mountain "quiet zone," an area maintained by the Department of Commerce for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to Terri Maraia, a NOAA telecommunications specialist, this 1,800-acre patch north of Boulder is the home of research activities involving antenna calibrations, millimeter wave measurements and radio-frequency propagation research that need to be done with a minimum of interference from other signals. To that end, the FCC passed a regulation in 1973 requiring broadcasters to reduce their signal levels over Table Mountain, with the exception of a handful of stations exempted by a grandfather clause.

Two of those -- Clear Channel's Fox and KBPI -- would probably lose their omnidirectional status if they moved to Eldorado, and four TV stations -- channels 4, 6, 7 and 9 -- would need to overcome engineering challenges in order to keep the quiet zone quiet. To Lambiotte, "That's a lot to deal with."

Lambiotte admits that the problems at Eldorado, Squaw Mountain and Mount Morrison aren't necessarily insurmountable. "But," he goes on, "now you know why we'd like to work things out on Lookout."

For most of the parties at odds over the digital tower, the current byword is "compromise."

The FCC certainly would like everyone to make nice, if only because overruling a local land-use decision, as the Lake Cedar Group has asked the commission to do, would almost certainly lead to litigation that might not end until the U.S. Supreme Court gets a chance to be heard. It's no surprise, then, that Bruce Romano, deputy chief of the FCC's policy and rules division, declares, "The FCC would like to see the local parties work out their differences...As chairman Kennard has said, we're committed to working constructively with our colleagues in state and local government to find a resolution to local matters such as this that will serve the public interest to the fullest extent possible."

That's good news to Jefferson County attorney Frank Hutfless. He sees any attempt by the FCC to cut the legs out from underneath Jeffco's commissioners as a move with huge constitutional implications, and even though he doesn't doubt that the county would eventually prevail ("I am firmly convinced that local authorities govern land use, and case law supports me"), he suspects that it would take years to sort out.

The suit filed against the county by the Lake Cedar Group also complicates matters, but Hutfless says, "I am attempting to encourage the group of broadcasters and the county and the community to come to the table and see if there isn't some room for negotiating a compromise that might not give everyone everything they want, but would be directed toward finding an answer that they can all live with."

Channel 6 general manager Morgese likes the sound of that. "I have hopes that we can negotiate a solution, which we've always been willing to do. Unfortunately, recent events have prevented an open discussion from taking place between all of us, but it's not our intent to inflame the situation."

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