Frequency Free-for-All

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

In addition to making music, Saunders loves recording it: Starting in the mid-'50s, he began taping concerts and cultural events using an ancient reel-to-reel. "I've got boxes and boxes of it, everything from country to rock," he allows. Upon learning of the FCC's original proposal regarding low-power FM, he thought of these tapes and realized they represented a practically endless supply of never-before-heard programming that could be supplemented by contributions from church and arts groups. Checking the FCC's Web site, fcc.gov, he discovered that the Estes Park radio dial had an open channel, 104.7 FM, that would more than suit his purposes.

When Saunders floated this proposition in Estes Park, he received an enthusiastic response. United Methodist Church liked the notion enough to put its name on Saunders's application, and other groups offered to pitch in, including several more churches, representatives of town government, a medical clinic, virtually every nearby arts collective, and even public schools. "They'd like to provide concerts and debates," Saunders reports, "and I'm encouraging them to write plays, too. It's amazing how many ideas have come out of this."

Before any of them could reach the airwaves, though, Saunders had to navigate the FCC's bureaucracy. In January the FCC opened up a five-day window for wannabe LPFM directors in this area to apply; after filling out all the required forms, Saunders ran them past the folks at Pennsylvania's Prometheus Radio Project, a pro-LPFM organization, who confirmed that everything was in order. And the FCC apparently agrees, since the Estes Park station appears on its August 16 compendium of acceptable applications. Individuals opposed to its licensing had until September 17 to file an objection, but no one did, presumably meaning it's only a matter of time before Saunders receives the feds' blessing.

Considering the numerous shifts in LPFM regulations, Saunders remains a bit cautious about proclaiming victory, and he's not alone: Representatives of Tenderfoot Transmitting in Salida, whose approved LPFM proposal also failed to attract objections, declined to be interviewed because some group members fear that something could still go wrong. But Saunders is confident enough to have begun readying his equipment for his station's debut. In his opinion, LPFM can do a tremendous amount of good in burgs like his, and he's perplexed that the National Association of Broadcasters and other industry groups have spent so much time trying to limit its spread.

"I'm not a threat to anyone," he says. "I'm not asking for advertisers -- just nominal support from people in the community to keep me going. And I think in this day and age, where communication is king, that's a hard idea to squelch."

Let's make a deal: Opponents of LPFM argue that low-power stations will interfere with existing signals. But interference issues are hardly unique to this format, with a brewing conflict between KGNU, Boulder's first-rate public-radio voice, and not one, but three proposed outlets in Fort Collins serving as exhibit A.

The story begins back in 1994, when KCSU, a station under the control of Colorado State University, went from being a community broadcaster to one run by students. This transition distressed Fort Collins engineer John Steininger and a number of other locals, who together formed Public Radio for the Front Range (PRFR), an assemblage dedicated to creating a channel to pick up where the old KCSU left off.

Negotiations with the university for an unused station-construction permit previously granted by the FCC went nowhere, so PRFR's members investigated whether there were any other open spots on the dial. They eventually found a gap and applied to the FCC to fill it with a 4,000-watt signal. But just because PRFR discovered the space didn't mean the group had first claim to it. As Steininger points out, FCC rules give other broadcasters a month to apply for new frequencies as well, and several did -- chief among them Colorado Christian University and WAY-FM, a religious firm from Franklin, Tennessee. When CSU surrendered the rights to the construction permit, Steininger notes, Colorado Christian University and PRFR bid for that as well.

The FCC didn't pick the winners of these prized frequencies quickly, because its criteria for choosing between applicants was tossed out by a mid-decade court case, and new provisions didn't come online until earlier this year. Predictably, given the FCC's pro-industry bias, the main factor used to determine who gets signals is now size; simply put, the largest power rating trumps all other considerations. Because of that, PRFR finished second to Colorado Christian University for both stations.

At first, Colorado Christian University looked as if it might want to keep both frequencies, but to avoid potential FCC delays and preserve the value of their investment, university officials called Steininger and his cohorts and recommended that they reach an accord. In July, the various parties announced their agreement: Colorado Christian University would be free to put up an 80,000-watt signal at 89.7 FM, the PRFR devotees would get the rights to build a 3,000 watt outlet at 88.9 FM, and WAY-FM would be bought off with a 100-watt operation (the same strength as an LPFM, but technically a full-power station) at 88.3 FM.

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