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Frequency Free-for-All

Anna Newell

Estes Park resident Paul Saunders is a rarity: an applicant for a license to run a low-power FM (LPFM) radio station who actually stands a good chance of being awarded one by the Federal Communications Commission. "I've had a lot of help from a lot of people," Saunders says. "I feel very lucky."

He should. As pointed out in last week's "The Making of a Pirate," the FCC initially created fairly generous guidelines to allow for certification of outlets with a power rating of 100 watts or less; the goal was to provide local alternatives to the increasingly centralized programming that's now the radio norm. But late last year, Congress so radically revised the rules governing LPFMs that approximately 80 percent of the applications previously received by the FCC -- including virtually all of the ones submitted by people living in urban areas -- were rendered obsolete.

And the 20 percent that remained? Just a glance at "Notice of Acceptance of Low Power FM Broadcast Applications and Notification of Petitions to Deny Deadline," issued by the FCC on August 16, indicates that almost all of them are rooted in small towns or rural areas. What's more, those remaining applicants aren't a terrifically diverse lot, with only a comparative handful appearing to be community groups of the sort the FCC originally set out to attract. In Colorado, for instance, a sizable chunk of the submissions listed on the FCC document were made by the state itself. A spokesman for Colorado's Division of Telecommunications confirms that, if approved, LPFM stations near Leadville, Craig, Kremmling, Carbondale and other locations will broadcast reports about road conditions and weather updates.

John Anderson, a Wisconsin journalist who oversees the encyclopedic Web site pirateradio.about.com, says that this state is noteworthy for its aggressive approach to going after these travel-oriented signals. "Colorado was pretty ballsy," Anderson maintains. "They put in eighteen LPFM applications, and when you're writing them, you're supposed to declare one of them your highest priority, because you're probably not going to get all of them. But Colorado filed an amendment saying that because they're the government and the stations are to be used for highway safety, all the requests are a priority."

Still, the number of applications filed by Colorado officials seems modest next to the number put forth by churches and other religious institutions -- a trend that's mirrored across the country. Anderson doesn't see this as an encouraging sign for LPFM.

"I'm not trying to disparage any of these groups," he says. "But I think they kind of took advantage of something that was possibly not intended for them. Calvary Chapel, the American Family Association and the Moody Bible Institute have been very active putting translators" -- small stations of 250 watts or less that boost signals from bigger outlets into outlying areas -- "on open spots on the dial. That helped spur the original LPFM proposal, because these translators were starting to crowd the dial in a lot of places, and the FCC wanted to give other people a chance to be heard. But now, even though they're already very well represented on the radio, they're trying to get hold of all the LPFMs, too."

This last comment is an overstatement, but not an enormous one; for example, as many as eight proposals linked to Calvary Chapel ministries across the country are on the cusp of approval, including one in Durango. FCC rules specifically state that 75 percent of programming on low-power stations is supposed to originate locally, ostensibly preventing organizations from using the format to create syndicated networks of the sort LPFMs are meant to combat. But the FCC doesn't have nearly the manpower to monitor each outlet, dramatically reducing the likelihood that anyone who violates the ordinance will be caught.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to assume that every church-sponsored LPFM is suspect. After all, Paul Saunders's project is affiliated with a local house of worship, United Methodist Church of Estes Park, but it encompasses virtually every attribute such stations should ideally possess.

Saunders, a 67-year-old architect, has a fascinating background. His career took a decisive turn in 1965 when he met film and theme park mogul Walt Disney. He worked on a couple of Disney's residences and continued his association with the company after Walt's death in 1966, eventually laying out Disneyland's New Orleans Square and the Haunted Mansion attraction at its center, as well as several portions of Disney World. He subsequently designed the first modern loop roller coaster, the Revolution, found at Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. (The ride is featured in the finale of the 1977 flick Rollercoaster, starring George Segal, Henry Fonda and Timothy Bottoms.) But Saunders eventually tired of California, moving to Fort Collins in 1987 and Estes Park two years later. Soon he was on the board of the Colorado Arts Consortium, which works with agencies and councils throughout rural Colorado, and became deeply involved in other creative activities.  

"It's the kind of town where that happens -- a great town for everybody forming everything from choirs to theater companies," Saunders says. For instance, "somebody asked me if I played an instrument, and I told him I'd played tuba in high school. Well, before I knew it, I'd picked up the tuba for the first time in 39 years, and now I play in the village band."

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.

So why didn't this pact establish peace in our time? Because, as it turned out, it screwed over KGNU. The station's main frequency, at 88.5 FM, would be turned to fuzz in Fort Collins by WAY-FM, just one dial click away, and a signal boosted into the area by a KGNU translator at 89.1 FM would get the same treatment from PRFR's station, an equal distance away.

As a fix, Steininger convinced the religious broadcasters to earmark $5,000 for KGNU to research a new translator location -- but this gesture hasn't placated KGNU station manager Marty Durlin. As Durlin knows from donation records, her station has a great many listeners in Fort Collins, and she doesn't want to lose them. So she sent out messages to everyone on her database in the Fort Collins area, urging them to write letters protesting the placement of the assorted stations. Thus far, 76 Fort Collins residents have complied with her request, and their missives will be included in a formal complaint to be filed in Washington, D.C., by KGNU's attorneys.

All of this leaves Steininger feeling torn -- and why not? PRFR has been fighting for a station for seven years, yet if the FCC ultimately signs off on the three-way settlement he helped broker, which could happen as early as next spring, his success may cause harm to KGNU, an outlet he admires. "One of KGNU's boardmembers put it well," Steininger says. "He said it's like the feeling you'd have watching your mother-in-law go over a cliff in your brand-new Cadillac. There's both a good side and a bad side."

Turn that frown upside down: Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, journalists at Denver's dailies have been under a great deal of pressure -- not as much as if they worked in New York City, but plenty nonetheless. Earlier this month, management at the Denver Post responded to this situation with one of the loopier memos in recent memory.

Titled "Lighten the Atmosphere" and featuring a cap-wearing stick figure merrily clicking his heels, the page is filled with frantically cheerful recommendations. Under the heading "Department Fun" are suggestions such as "Crazy hat/crazy socks day," "Fun contests -- funny poem, drawing," "Bowling parties" and "Put up balloons." The "Stress Relievers" section chimes in with "Pamper yourself (get hair cut, get your nails done)," "Reduce your caffeine (that means chocolate)," "Plan the next day before the previous day ends" and "Change your attitude: Think positive, forget the negative," while advice for "bosses" includes "Make sure assignments are necessary" (a radical theory) and "Organize some fun."

The motivation behind the memo, explains Post editor Glenn Guzzo, was "simply to acknowledge that these are pretty intense times...Immediately, we go to work; we've got something to occupy us fully, while others in the community comfort each other and talk things through. Newsroom folks working around the clock miss that. When the work fatigue starts to set in after a string of long days, our folks will be susceptible to whatever emotional effect might have been postponed." Guzzo adds that if there's been any negative reaction to the memo, "it hasn't reached me."

The reaction around here has been entirely positive. The thought of senior Post staffers wearing psychedelic toe socks and beanies with propellers on top lightened the atmosphere considerably.

Fight or flight: In recent weeks, officials and press representatives at Denver International Airport, whose alleged inaccessibility during the facility's September closure prompted gripes from several local reporters ("Talking Points," September 27), have been making an increased effort to get out in front of the public. But thus far, not all of their attempts are paying dividends -- and the habit of getting prickly when faced with criticism is proving hard to break. Last week, an enlightening package by Channel 9's Paula Woodward showed that delivery trucks and the like weren't being searched at a particular DIA entrance, whereas every arriving passenger vehicle was receiving the once-over. But no DIA spokesman appeared on screen to react to this news; instead, Mark Lovin, deputy manager of aviation for operations, commented off camera. Worse, Lovin didn't promise to look into this apparent security lapse, but offered bland, we've-got-everything-under-control assurances of the sort that might have flown before September 11 but don't get off the ground anymore.  

Infinitely worse, though, were remarks offered by DIA spokesman Chuck Cannon on October 2 while visiting KOA's Sports Zoo. Speaking with host Scott Hastings, who is much better talking about the Broncos than he is tackling international politics, Cannon tried to prove that air travel is still safe by noting that there were over 6,500 flights in the air on September 11 and only four didn't eventually make it to where they were heading. He called this result "a pretty good average."

Guess that means if only two planes crash tomorrow, killing everyone on board and untold others on the ground, Cannon will see it as a 50 percent improvement.


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