Crosstown Traffic

Community-radio advocates and the Colorado Department of Transportation wind up in gridlock.

"I guess it's in the eye of the beholder," says spokesman Hopkins, "but we feel this is one of the appropriate uses as identified by the FCC for these frequencies."

Maybe so, but there's no question that the Minturn Public Radio and Colorado Mountain College propositions qualify, too. The former, says Minturn Public Radio spokeswoman Liz Campbell, plans to broadcast a wide range of music that's not being played by the small handful of alternate stations in the area, including sounds beloved by Minturn's large population of Hispanics, most of whom commute to Vail. The station is also seen as a potential platform for area journalism students, arts collectives and government agencies -- a reason that numerous politicians in the region, including Colorado Representative Al White, have publicly supported it.

The Steamboat Springs station would be similarly eclectic, says Robert Ritschel, dean of the college's so-called Alpine Campus: "We lack community information for such things as city council meetings and county commissioner meetings, and we'd love to be able to rebroadcast concerts by local musical groups. And we also see it as an educational tool that would allow student broadcasters to get hands-on experience." In addition, both Campbell and Ritschel say they'd be happy to work with CDOT concerning the regular airing of road reports, which the stations had planned to include anyway.

CDOT, though, is only interested in wall-to-wall highway updates, and has instead suggested -- via a letter sent to the FCC on November 21 by Paul Nelson, manager of the state's Telecommunications Services department -- that the Commission allow Minturn Public Radio and Colorado Mountain College to move to other available frequencies. Hopkins emphasized this possible solution in interviews with reporter Jim Hughes for a November 30 Denver Post article, and did likewise with scribe Kevin Flynn for a December 3 Rocky Mountain News piece. Thanks to his consummate skill at spinning, CDOT came across as much more reasonable and accommodating than did its adversaries, who seemed closed-minded and churlish by comparison. But each of these reports contained notable inaccuracies and left out key details that add credence to the arguments made by the Minturn and Steamboat Springs contingents.

Examples? CDOT's original application for its sixteen signals didn't earmark one of them as its "primary" project, as required in the LPFM directives. Indeed, the designation of its proposal in Eagle didn't take place until after the filing window was closed, thereby giving the department the advantage of knowing that no other application was in conflict with it. On top of that, the tardy filing attempted to trump all competing stations by saying, "It is the state of Colorado's opinion that all sixteen sites carry a high priority with respect to protecting the safety of life, health and property of the general public. We therefore believe that each application should be considered separately on its merits with any competing application for the same location" -- a dubious interpretation of the LPFM guidelines.

The FCC's method of choosing one low-power FM station over another is based on a three-point system, with one point each being awarded for "showing a community presence of at least two years prior to the application," "pledging to operate at least twelve hours daily" and "pledging to locally originate at least eight hours of programming daily." On the surface, this grading method would seem to favor the Minturn and Steamboat Springs operations, since it's doubtful that repetitive broadcasts of road conditions across the state could be considered local to any given community.

But if the semantics go CDOT's way, the applicants might end up in a tie -- and the FCC's stated approach to resolving such disputes is a muddled mess. The Commission will encourage parties in such circumstances to share time -- something CDOT almost certainly wouldn't accept, because it can't predict when bad weather will hit. Such a rejection would then trigger the FCC to award mutually exclusive applicants "successive license terms of at least one year each" that are not renewable, meaning the combatants would have to take turns running a station for a finite period of time with the full knowledge that when the license expires they'll be forced to reacquaint themselves with square one.

The CDOT applications at odds with the Minturn group's plan are flawed in another way as well. According to the Minturn Public Radio boardmember, the signals of the department's wished-for stations in Vail and Edwards actually overlap one another, which could cause a whole range of interference problems. Spokesman Hopkins says it shouldn't matter if the broadcasts bleed together, because they'll be airing the exact same programming -- a theory so highly debatable that Hopkins, a man with a well-deserved reputation as a straight shooter, may simply have been working with incomplete facts when commenting on these topics. But even if he's right, the overlap remains a technical violation of FCC decrees.

Other statements Hopkins made to the Post and the News, as well as to yours truly, are equally questionable. Hughes and Flynn quote him as saying that CDOT wants to be on the same frequency throughout Western Colorado, so that travelers can tune to the same dial spot all the way along the I-70 corridor from Grand Junction to Vail. But because of differences in spectrum availability from place to place, CDOT's sixteen applications actually encompass a total of four frequencies -- 99.7, the signal for which Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs also applied, along with 99.1, 106.7 and 107.9. The last frequency shows up on seven of the applications, but several of them, such as those in Kremmling, Aspen and Leadville, are quite a ways from I-70; in contrast, four proposed stations that would be on I-70 -- in Grand Junction, Parachute, Rifle and Glenwood Springs -- will be at 106.7, if approved. (The Glenwood Springs application conflicts with one filed under the name Defiance Radio, but CDOT may not have to fight over that one. Minturn Public Radio representatives have tried to track down someone from the organization for months without luck, and a source in Glenwood Springs says the woman who headed the group, identified as Carolyn Cipperly, has left town.)

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