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Crosstown Traffic

Susan Goldstein

"Yes," says Paul Saunders, "there is a Santa Claus!"

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.

"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.)

Even so, the largest omissions made by the daily papers concern the substance of CDOT's November letter, whose arguments had been floated, without success, to the FCC in a previous e-mail. Last winter, at the suggestion of a broadcast attorney, Minturn Public Radio types got in touch with the state's Telecommunications Services department trying to work out a way to cooperate with CDOT, but they say they were put off for months. Finally, in September, Conrad Sramek, representing Telecommunications Services, e-mailed the FCC requesting that Minturn Public Radio and Colorado Mountain College be allowed to change the frequencies for which they'd initially applied. In reply, the FCC's Dale Bickel wrote, "At the present time, it has not been decided whether frequency change amendments will be permitted to eliminate conflicts in the LPFM service, nor any procedures established to handle such amendments. I expect that the Commission will eventually issue an order to clarify this matter, but I have no idea when that might be."

The aforementioned letter sent on November 21 by Telecommunication Services's Nelson made the same plea as Sramek's memo; it was prompted by a missive sent to CDOT executive director Tom Norton by Minturn Public Radio president Timothy Bryendlson and Colorado Mountain College's Ritschel two days earlier, but Nelson didn't consult with either of them before presuming to speak on their behalf. Unfortunately, it's all but guaranteed to receive the same hazy response from the FCC. In an e-mail to Westword, Bickel said there's still been no decision about whether or not to consider such amendments. Given what a bureaucratic nightmare handling hundreds upon hundreds of LPFM applications has turned into for the chronically understaffed Commission, FCC executives may ultimately choose, for expediency's sake, not to wade into this murky water -- and even if they do, the delays could well be measured not in months, but in years.

Hopkins believes otherwise: He says CDOT has every reason to believe that the FCC will react positively to its amendment proposal, thus resulting in "a win-win situation" for everyone involved. But the Minturn Public Radio boardmember calls the petition "a ruse to deflect criticism of a department that didn't do its homework first and didn't care that a whole variety of communities would love to have their own radio stations.

"This isn't only affecting Minturn or Steamboat or Glenwood Springs," he goes on. "It's affecting all sixteen locations that may not be applicants today but might be candidates for future applications, and now won't be able to because CDOT has already taken the signals. They're not interested in the communities. If they were, we'd be at the point that guy in Estes Park is."

That Estes Park guy -- Santa Claus look-alike Paul Saunders -- is indeed moving forward. He's already had his first organizational meeting and boldly predicts that he'll be on the air in six months. Meanwhile, says the Minturn boardmember, "We're hopeful that our station will eventually get approved. But we've been waiting and waiting and waiting for two years. And we're still waiting."

May we please come home again? Last month, five former Rocky Mountain News staffers who left the paper for high-paying positions at Interactive Week wound up unemployed after the high-tech magazine kinda/sorta merged with a sister publication ("The Subject of a Lifetime," November 15). Now, one of them has returned to the roost: Bill Scanlon is back working the city beat for the News, joining Charlie Brennan, another writer who decamped a while ago only to realize that the grass on the other side of the fence is looking mighty brown these days.

There's no telling if the other prodigals will eventually follow, but News business editor Rob Reuteman isn't making any guarantees. Over the past couple of years, Reuteman has had to replace oodles of reporters lured away by dollar signs, but thanks to a tanking economy that's decimated the business-mag market, things have changed. "If you're looking for a job, it's terrible, but if you're hiring, it's tremendous," he allows. He's been advertising nationally for an open position in his department and is extremely impressed by the quality of the resumés he's received. He doesn't rule out the possibility that a News alum will ultimately get the nod, but he says, "We don't like to look at ourselves as a safety net, where you can go off and do something else, but you can always come back. That's just not the case."

Yes, the worm has turned, and Reuteman is licking his chops. Laughing, he says, "I'm in the catbird seat now."