By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Saunders has never really doubted the existence of the Big Red One: With a snowy beard and a bowl-full-of-jelly physique, he's the very image of St. Nick, whom he's been portraying this holiday season at Estes Park's landmark Stanley Hotel. But his faith was confirmed on a late-November evening when he was interrupted in the middle of the Tim Allen flick The Santa Clause -- a movie he watches to get into character -- with great news. The United Methodist Church of Estes Park, with which Saunders teamed to apply for a license to build a low-power FM station ("Frequency Free-for-All," October 11), had just been granted a construction permit by the Federal Communications Commission.
"Now I can honestly say we have a radio station!" Saunders exults, adding, "I had been optimistic, but there's always that nagging doubt as other applications around the country are being denied."
In Colorado, too, Saunders's success story is the exception, not the rule. Of the fifty Colorado requests for low-power FMs submitted to the FCC during the now-closed application window, just five have been approved thus far -- the one in Estes Park, plus four offered by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) for stations in the Western Slope communities of Carbondale, Craig, Delta and Kremmling. When they're operational, the CDOT outlets will broadcast a tape loop of information about weather and road conditions -- supplementing a slew of AM signals, often found at 530 AM, that serve the same purpose elsewhere in the state -- to those who must travel on often-treacherous mountain roads. Says Dan Hopkins, the longtime CDOT spokesman who recently took over as the official mouthpiece for Governor Bill Owens, "These can be valuable resources in life-and-death situations."
Still, the remaining FM initiatives aren't necessarily bound for the trash heap. Many are presently in limbo because they're competing with one or more applicants for a frequency -- including several requests by CDOT, which asked for permission to put up a whopping sixteen stations. These proposals could be fast-tracked by the FCC if competing projects withdraw.
But at least two groups jockeying for dial spots eyed by CDOT -- Minturn Public Radio in Minturn, a town near Vail, and Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs -- have no intention of backing down. Far from it: Representatives from these organizations accuse the state of everything from bad faith to the spread of disinformation. Says a Minturn Public Radio boardmember, who speaks on the condition of anonymity, "The very kind of bureaucracy that we least expected to monopolize the airwaves is sticking its foot into things and doing the one thing this license was most designed to combat: the homogenization of the airwaves."
The intent of those who created the low-power FM option is at the heart of this debate. The LPFM concept began receiving serious consideration after the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which largely deregulated the radio business, thereby allowing mega-corporations such as Clear Channel (a major player in Denver) to scoop up hundreds of stations nationwide. Within a few short years, radio was dominated by a mere handful of companies whose extraordinary growth silenced an enormous number of locally minded mom-and-pop stations in the process.
Understanding this, former FCC chairman William Kennard promoted LPFM as a forum for just plain folks. In a March 2000 address critical of the powerful lobbies opposed to the notion, he said, "There are those who have been working nonstop to keep those first small stations from going on the air. Why? Because they know that once new voices can be heard, nothing can silence them." Kennard added, "This is about the haves -- the broadcast industry -- trying to prevent many have-nots -- small community and educational organizations -- from having just a little piece of the pie, just a little piece of the airwaves that belong to all the people."
On the surface, Kennard's words imply that CDOT's goal of creating a statewide radio traffic-alert system is incompatible with the low-power FM ideal. So, too, do FCC rules stating that 75 percent of the programming at such stations should be local in nature -- an edict put in place to prevent the creation of syndicated LPFM networks that would differ little from their full-powered brethren. The Minturn boardmember certainly interprets the situation through this prism. "The dearth of available frequencies is so acute that the head of the FCC created an opportunity for the community to have access to the public airways," he says. "Which is why it's so galling that our access is being severely undermined by a state agency that's supposed to be our advocate."
However, the FCC's definition of LPFM eligibility is broader than it may seem at first. In his March 2000 remarks, Kennard specifically mentioned "state public-safety agencies" as being among those groups that might benefit from low-power FM. And the introduction to the LPFM section of the Commission's Web site, fcc.gov, points out that the service will be available to "Travelers' Information Station entities" - a statement that bolsters CDOT's case.