Frequency Free-for-All

Getting a legal, low-power FM station on the air is easier said than done.

Estes Park resident Paul Saunders is a rarity: an applicant for a license to run a low-power FM (LPFM) radio station who actually stands a good chance of being awarded one by the Federal Communications Commission. "I've had a lot of help from a lot of people," Saunders says. "I feel very lucky."

He should. As pointed out in last week's "The Making of a Pirate," the FCC initially created fairly generous guidelines to allow for certification of outlets with a power rating of 100 watts or less; the goal was to provide local alternatives to the increasingly centralized programming that's now the radio norm. But late last year, Congress so radically revised the rules governing LPFMs that approximately 80 percent of the applications previously received by the FCC -- including virtually all of the ones submitted by people living in urban areas -- were rendered obsolete.

And the 20 percent that remained? Just a glance at "Notice of Acceptance of Low Power FM Broadcast Applications and Notification of Petitions to Deny Deadline," issued by the FCC on August 16, indicates that almost all of them are rooted in small towns or rural areas. What's more, those remaining applicants aren't a terrifically diverse lot, with only a comparative handful appearing to be community groups of the sort the FCC originally set out to attract. In Colorado, for instance, a sizable chunk of the submissions listed on the FCC document were made by the state itself. A spokesman for Colorado's Division of Telecommunications confirms that, if approved, LPFM stations near Leadville, Craig, Kremmling, Carbondale and other locations will broadcast reports about road conditions and weather updates.

John Anderson, a Wisconsin journalist who oversees the encyclopedic Web site pirateradio.about.com, says that this state is noteworthy for its aggressive approach to going after these travel-oriented signals. "Colorado was pretty ballsy," Anderson maintains. "They put in eighteen LPFM applications, and when you're writing them, you're supposed to declare one of them your highest priority, because you're probably not going to get all of them. But Colorado filed an amendment saying that because they're the government and the stations are to be used for highway safety, all the requests are a priority."

Still, the number of applications filed by Colorado officials seems modest next to the number put forth by churches and other religious institutions -- a trend that's mirrored across the country. Anderson doesn't see this as an encouraging sign for LPFM.

"I'm not trying to disparage any of these groups," he says. "But I think they kind of took advantage of something that was possibly not intended for them. Calvary Chapel, the American Family Association and the Moody Bible Institute have been very active putting translators" -- small stations of 250 watts or less that boost signals from bigger outlets into outlying areas -- "on open spots on the dial. That helped spur the original LPFM proposal, because these translators were starting to crowd the dial in a lot of places, and the FCC wanted to give other people a chance to be heard. But now, even though they're already very well represented on the radio, they're trying to get hold of all the LPFMs, too."

This last comment is an overstatement, but not an enormous one; for example, as many as eight proposals linked to Calvary Chapel ministries across the country are on the cusp of approval, including one in Durango. FCC rules specifically state that 75 percent of programming on low-power stations is supposed to originate locally, ostensibly preventing organizations from using the format to create syndicated networks of the sort LPFMs are meant to combat. But the FCC doesn't have nearly the manpower to monitor each outlet, dramatically reducing the likelihood that anyone who violates the ordinance will be caught.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to assume that every church-sponsored LPFM is suspect. After all, Paul Saunders's project is affiliated with a local house of worship, United Methodist Church of Estes Park, but it encompasses virtually every attribute such stations should ideally possess.

Saunders, a 67-year-old architect, has a fascinating background. His career took a decisive turn in 1965 when he met film and theme park mogul Walt Disney. He worked on a couple of Disney's residences and continued his association with the company after Walt's death in 1966, eventually laying out Disneyland's New Orleans Square and the Haunted Mansion attraction at its center, as well as several portions of Disney World. He subsequently designed the first modern loop roller coaster, the Revolution, found at Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. (The ride is featured in the finale of the 1977 flick Rollercoaster, starring George Segal, Henry Fonda and Timothy Bottoms.) But Saunders eventually tired of California, moving to Fort Collins in 1987 and Estes Park two years later. Soon he was on the board of the Colorado Arts Consortium, which works with agencies and councils throughout rural Colorado, and became deeply involved in other creative activities.

"It's the kind of town where that happens -- a great town for everybody forming everything from choirs to theater companies," Saunders says. For instance, "somebody asked me if I played an instrument, and I told him I'd played tuba in high school. Well, before I knew it, I'd picked up the tuba for the first time in 39 years, and now I play in the village band."

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