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In a media world that's in lust with new technology, radio seems thoroughly old-fashioned, the equivalent of a bicyclist competing in the Daytona 500. At times, though, it's still better to be Lance Armstrong than Jeff Gordon.
Just ask the pupils and staffers at Ouray High School, located in a gorgeous part of southwestern Colorado. The home of the Trojans (not those Trojans) was once limited to a Web radio station accessible at www.ourayradio.com. The outlet can be tuned in by computer users all over the planet, but, says student Catie Pitts, "We didn't get that much community involvement and not many calls or requests at all with Webcasting, because nobody knew about it." Fortunately, things turned around after the birth of KURA, a low-power FM station launched in August 2002. As the only radio signal originating from Ouray, which has a population of around 800, it immediately became an important source of news and entertainment, as well as a point of town pride. Thus far, the operation hasn't had to hold a major fundraiser, because so many folks have spontaneously offered donations or underwriting support. "It's been crazy," enthuses Pitts, KURA's music director. "Everybody in town listens to it."
KURA isn't the only Colorado enterprise to have succeeded thanks to the low-power FM (LPFM) initiative, a federal law from 2000 that allows for the creation of stations broadcasting at 100 watts or less. KREV, licensed to Estes Park's United Methodist Church and overseen by Santa Claus look-alike Paul Saunders ("Crosstown Traffic," December 13, 2001), has delivered religious and secular programming for over a year to residents of the scenic northern Colorado destination. Meanwhile, KHEN, which debuted in February, is serving the 6,000 or so individuals living in Salida, west of Pueblo. The station's eclectic blend of music and information programming is assembled with the assistance of station manager Jane Carpenter, a veteran of KGNU, Boulder's widely beloved public-radio broadcaster. "I'm a huge proponent of community radio," Carpenter says. "I believe it's vitally important for people to be able to express what they like about life, or what they're dissatisfied about. And they need access to the airwaves to do it."
Michael Powell, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, may be coming around to this way of thinking -- and if so, his mind's negotiated quite a U-turn. During much of 2003, Powell has been pilloried by an ideologically varied collection of observers for promoting greater media consolidation without much regard to the local voices that would doubtless be quelled as a result. Most controversial were FCC rulings handed down in June that would let a single firm own television stations that reach 45 percent of Americans (a 10 percent increase) and permit companies to hold titles to newspapers and numerous radio and/or TV properties in the same market, a concept known as cross-ownership.
In July, the U.S. House of Representatives responded to these FCC moves by voting to toss out the 45 percent provision. Last week, the Senate went even further, passing a measure sponsored by North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan to scotch all of the FCC's June changes; Dorgan's sweeping approach would even eliminate a new regulation designed to forestall the growth of radio mega-corporations, which many anti-consolidationists like. The House probably won't sign on to these provisions; Majority Leader Tom DeLay was quoted as saying, "Nice exercise, Senate. It is going nowhere. Dead on arrival." Nonetheless, the level of bipartisan activity at play indicates how unpopular Powell's reforms have become -- and legal maneuvers are apt to complicate matters further. On September 4, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia stopped implementation of FCC regs about ownership limits in response to a challenge filed by Philly's Prometheus Radio Project, whose technical director, Pete Tridish, is a nationally recognized LPFM advocate. The court's order stated that in consideration of "the magnitude of this matter and the public's interest in reaching the proper resolution, a stay is warranted."
In the face of these objections, Powell has started modifying his public remarks about consolidation. On August 18, at a conference in Aspen sponsored by the Progress & Freedom Foundation, he acknowledged the surly mood of news consumers, albeit in a somewhat defensive way. "Policy-makers should wake up," he said. "The public is concerned about the big media. Our responsibility is to channel that concern into something constructive, and the commission is going to put itself back in the leadership position -- to look at those concerns and point them in a more positive direction rather than some of the mudslinging we've seen this summer" ("The Rah Expedition," August 21). In Washington two days later, Powell put some meat on the bones of these comments, promising to expedite the processing of low-power FM applications, some of which have been lingering for years; according to the San Jose Mercury News, he called this step "an honest attempt to address the concerns raised by the public about localism during the media-ownership proceeding."
For low-power FM backers like Tridish, Powell's words came as a surprise. After all, Tridish notes, LPFM was a pet project of Powell's predecessor as FCC chairman, William Kennard, who occasionally aligned himself against powerful broadcasting lobbies with whom Powell seems to get along swimmingly. (Kennard led a Democratic majority on the five-commissioner panel; Republicans, including Powell, now hold the balance of power.) In a March 2000 speech rapping influence-peddlers who demonized LPFM, Kennard said, "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."
In the end, the haves to which Kennard referred weren't able to abort LPFM, but they did place severe restrictions on it. The FCC under Kennard recommended what's known as a "third channel adjacent" rule, which would have let low-power FMs plant themselves as close as three dial positions away from an existing station. For example, a signal at 91.3 FM would be three clicks from both 90.7 FM and 91.9 FM. Such spacing would have allowed LPFMs to squeeze into some big cities.
Instead, Congress went with a fourth-channel-adjacent dictum pending the completion of a study it commissioned to determine if a more relaxed standard would cause interference problems. (Apparently, the numerous investigations that had already given the thumbs-up to third-channel adjacency weren't enough.) Because dial space is extremely tight in places such as this one, the maneuver effectively killed low-power FMs in nearly every major market -- hence the presence of LPFMs in Ouray, Estes Park and Salida but not in Denver, Boulder or Colorado Springs.
The situation in metro areas wouldn't improve under Powell's plan to speed up the LPFM licensing process, which is one reason Tridish is measured in his reaction. "It's a small but meaningful step in the right direction," he says, displaying more politeness than one would expect from a guy who's part of a lawsuit against the FCC. John Anderson, a Wisconsin journalist and activist who runs www.diymedia.net, an indispensable Web site devoted to low-power FMs and pirate radio, is less kind. He wonders if Powell's sudden embrace of low power might be nothing more than "a tool to parry some of the criticism he's received" for his media-consolidation jones. Firing Anderson's suspicions further is his belief that the FCC under Powell has done little to help make LPFMs more widely available, and in some ways has slowed the process.
Take the congressionally mandated study, conducted by the MITRE Corporation. Anderson says the Amherst Alliance, a pro-LPFM group of which he's a member, heard rumors earlier this year that the MITRE report had been completed. However, the FCC hadn't bothered to release it. The Alliance filed a Freedom of Information Act request intended to break the document loose, but the FCC didn't respond during the required time period. Months of back-and-forth later, Anderson reveals, "We sent a letter saying, in essence, 'This is your last chance. If we don't hear anything, we reserve the right to take court action and contact people in Congress.'" Shortly thereafter, the study turned up unannounced in a cyberspace back alley -- the electronic-comment-filing zone of the FCC's Web site, www.fcc.gov -- just in time to stave off the government's attorneys. As interpreted by Anderson, the results show that not only are third-channel-adjacent LPFMs unlikely to cause significant interference issues, but even second-adjacent stations would probably work just fine in many circumstances.
On the surface, the MITRE study would seem to open the door to many more LPFMs in rural as well as urban settings, but not so fast: Congress would still have to pass a law establishing the third-channel-adjacent model. Although Arizona Senator John McCain might be inclined to propose such legislation, as he did in 2001, his loyalties may be shifting; he voted against the Dorgan bill to kill the FCC's June guidelines. Even if McCain and like-minded colleagues step up to the plate, they'll be in for another battle with broadcast-industry lobbyists and the officials in their pocket. And on the odd chance that legislation is passed and signed by President George W. Bush despite all this, another possible obstacle is looming. Anderson has been tracking the filing of applications for broadcast translators -- devices of 250 watts or less that boost the signals of larger stations into outlying areas. In March of this year alone, an astonishing 13,000 such requests were filed, most by religious media organizations presumably trying to establish nationwide networks on the cheap. (Two groups, Radio Assist Ministry and Edgewater Broadcasting Inc. accounted for almost a third of the total.) While some of these translators won't be approved, those that get the go-ahead will further clog the radio spectrum, potentially leaving much less room for future low-power FMs.
That's a pity, because the three LPFMs referenced above have done plenty to enliven the media landscape in their respective municipalities. KREV plays programs affiliated with the United Methodist Church as well as shows like Voices of Our World, a production of the Catholic Maryknoll order. "We're trying to be ecumenical," says station head Saunders -- and this philosophy extends to general-interest music. Classical, jazz and pop from the '60s and '70s all receive their due via the hundreds of vinyl LPs that have been donated to the cause thus far, and performances by Colorado groups such as Rocky Mountain Brassworks, a band that's headlined a KREV fundraiser, are spotlighted regularly. Saunders, assisted by a slew of dedicated volunteers, also keeps the kids in mind, with a morning storytime segment (he reads books under the name "Uncle Paul") and after-school rock assembled by local students. "It's real head-banging stuff," Saunders says. "It isn't our music, really, but they talked the school-bus drivers into tuning their radios into it, so that's kind of neat."
Such experiences have caused Saunders to get behind the LPFM movement in general. Last spring he attended the National Federation of Community Broadcasters convention in San Francisco along with hundreds of grassroots broadcasters. "I was impressed," he says, "with how committed and high-minded everybody was."
KHEN's Carpenter fits this description, and her station's "patchwork quilt" of a schedule reflects her vision. She and a hundred or so volunteers supplement syndicated material like the unapologetically progressive Democracy Now with music programs focused upon jazz, classical, world, reggae, rock and Native American styles, as well as Shellac Tracks, which is culled from old 78s. Also on tap are new-age topics, poetry and a Latino program hosted by a local foreign-studies student. To Carpenter, the diversity of these offerings enhances life in Salida and could do the same in places like Denver. "I know the frequencies are jam-packed in the metro area, and I'm not sure how to solve that," she says. "But to me, I feel there are communities there, whether they're teenagers or people from different cultures -- Vietnamese or whatever -- who need someplace where they can produce programs of cultural news and music to share."
KURA has a somewhat different mission, says Nancy Nixon, the Ouray High teacher who oversees the radio station. "We really have to please everybody," she says. "So from eight to five, we play music that appeals to our business owners -- a mix that 25- to 60-year-olds would like." The playlist assembled by music director Pitts isn't as staid as this description implies; it ranges from Blue Man Group to Jane's Addiction. Still, Nixon concedes that "it was hard for the kids to accept at first." They came around in part because evenings are set aside for edgier fare. Of 63 high school students in Ouray, 21 are on the KURA staff, which, to Nixon, "speaks for its popularity."
As a bonus, Pitts adds, the station has brought the citizens of Ouray closer together: "I'll be walking down the street and someone I don't even know will say, 'Hey, I heard you on the radio. You sounded great.'" For her, KURA has been "a wonderful experience" of the sort that should be duplicated in communities of every proportion. "It's not like we're a commercial-run station that sounds exactly like forty other outlets across the country. We're the only station like this. It's just us."
News you can lose: Hearing local news on Denver radio isn't as easy as it once was. With the notable exception of KOA, talk outlets owned by San Antonio broadcasting colossus Clear Channel have replaced in-studio newscasters with national fare purchased from the likes of CBS Radio -- and the occasional updates on music-themed stations aren't exactly what you'd call in-depth. On September 15, during the a.m. drive on 103.5/The Fox, news reader Robbyn Hart shared a grand total of two stories: a snippet about Kobe Bryant and mention of a Yoko Ono art project in which the aging avant-gardist allowed people to cut off pieces of her dress until she was down to her underwear. Afterward, the G-Man dished out a super-sized serving of sports bits. Send mine back to the kitchen.
Even less informative was a report heard on Colorado Public Radio's KCFR on the morning of September 11 -- the newscast from the previous day. This botch was so egregious that CPR put an item on the home page of its Web site, www.cpr.org, that read, "In recent weeks, Colorado Public Radio has experienced a number of technical problems. This means that we've made mistakes on the radio -- some minor, some major. We apologize for these mistakes. And we want you to know we're working hard to eliminate them." The next week, unluckily, disaster struck again at the news-and-information portion of the CPR system. Normally, BBC World Service ends at 4 a.m. to make way for Morning Edition, but on September 17, it kept right on going for around two more hours, with British announcers occasionally interrupted in mid-sentence by pre-recorded blurbs telling listeners that, for instance, "We're heading into great kite-flying weather today."
Since public radio has traditionally emphasized a personal relationship with listeners, screwups that make CPR seem like a soulless machine constitute an ugly problem. Understanding that, CPR vice president of communications Sean Nethery explains that "there isn't a single core reason behind the mistakes" -- which they're doing their best to correct -- "other than that humans put together radio stations and we make mistakes."
That does not compute.