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Corporate bigfoot CSN tunes out community stations

Per FCC regulations, the band between 88 and 92 MHz on the FM dial is meant to be the sole province of noncommercial radio. That’s where you’ll find most college and independent stations, with their relatively low wattage, eclectic independent music, and community-oriented programming. In these days of unceasing corporate conglomeration, that smallish on-air oasis on the left of the dial is a vital counterbalance.

Calvary Satellite Network International, based in Twin Falls, Idaho, is a religious broadcaster ("Solid Bible teaching. Passionate praise and worship") that spreads its message via 33 full-power stations nationwide, including WFGL (960 AM) in Fitchburg — though most of the company’s stations are FM. It’s also one of the biggest practitioners of a recent trend in evangelical broadcasting: snatching up hundreds of low-power (less than 250 watts) FM translator stations to relay its satellite feed, expanding the broadcaster’s reach.

A pending decision by the Federal Communications Commission could bring CSN International one step closer to a much stronger Massachusetts presence — at the potential expense of noncommercial and college stations. If the syndicate is allowed to transmit its satellite feed, 20,000 watts strong, from a tower in Plymouth, it could muddle the signal of many lower-power stations — including Boston College’s student-run WZBC (90.3 FM) — for several hundred thousand listeners on the South Shore. It would also set a terrible precedent, allowing a nationwide broadcaster to take up valuable FM bandwidth with syndicated programming antithetical to the local spirit noncommercial radio is supposed to support.

In April 2003, CSN International was granted a permit by the FCC to construct a full-power station, WSMA (90.5 FM), in Plymouth (licensed, for some reason, up the coast in Scituate). Ordinarily, all noncommercial stations are required to operate a manned studio in their city of license. But at the beginning of last month, CSN filed a petition with the FCC to waive the "main studio" requirement for WSMA. Citing a desire to save costs, CSN — whose spokesperson was unavailable for comment at press time — proposed that WSMA be recognized as a satellite station of the co-owned WJWT (91.7 FM), which would be located 87 miles away in Gardner. That station, in turn, would actually operate from WFGL, 13 miles down the road in Fitchburg.

This geographical three-card monte suggests that CSN has no intention of offering locally oriented programming, says Alex Chassin, general manager of WMFO (91.5 FM), the student-run station at Tufts University. "Our [FCC] licenses say that we’re required to maintain a main studio in our community of license," he says, speaking of fellow college-station managers. "That means serving your specific community. We’re all required to do public-service announcements and do programming that pertains to the community. And we all do. But it also means not having your station be automated. And that’s the difference between all of us and WSMA. That’s what they’re asking: they’re petitioning the FCC to waive that requirement, meaning that they can just feed canned programming, whatever they want to do, through that transmitter." (Incidentally, CSN International has also applied to the FCC for permission to buy a handful of low-power FM translator stations in Massachusetts; one of them, the 200-watt 91.7 FM in Lexington, could well interfere with WMFO’s 125-watt signal.)

Boston Independent Media Center radio group co-coordinator John Grebe, who hosts Sounds of Dissent every Saturday at noon on WZBC, is of course not happy with the prospect of interference with WZBC’s signal. But, he says, "my principal concern about this is as someone who cares about campus and community radio in general. Having this national chain coming in, who are not going to have a local main studio in this town, and the fact that they’re filing for a half-dozen licenses at once in different locations, it’s a bad precedent."

The FCC needs you to tell it so. Unfortunately, CSN International’s petition process flew under the radar for most of the 30-day public-comment period, which ends this Friday. Also, strangely, posted letters are the only comments the FCC is accepting. So there’s just one thing for you to do: tune in to your favorite college station, and get out your nicest stationery.

To let the FCC know that you disapprove of CSN International’s petition for a "main studio" waiver, overnight a letter to Marlene H. Dortch, Secretary, Federal Communications Commission, Office of the Secretary, 9300 East Hampton Drive, Capitol Heights, MD 20743. (Letters must be received by Friday, March 4.) For more information, visit www.democracies.com.

Issue Date: March 4 - 10, 2005
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