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News Archive: February 2007

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2/28/07 - CSN Exposé Finally Published [link to this story]

The long-awaited L.A. Times piece on the problems at the Calvary Satellite Network was published today. It doesn't include much more than we already knew, save for a few interesting factoids:

1. The CSN network is valued at $250 million, most of that in the form of the licenses for the 450+ full-power FM and translator stations it owns.

2. Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith poured some $13 million into network construction, and Chuck's son, Jeff, siphoned money from his dad's radio ministry to finance CSN in troubled times.

3. CSN's director of operations, Mike Kestler, pastor of Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls, Idaho, has a long history of friendship with Chuck Smith, which is why the split between Chuck, Jeff, and Mike has been so acrimonious.

4. Allegations of sexual impropriety against Kestler involve not one, but at least three women. Kestler wouldn't talk with the Times, and his lawyer contributed two sentences.

5. The lawsuit flurry between the parties has not yet been settled, though it seems that if CSN is split up, the Smiths will take most of the full-power FM radio stations (valued at $50 million) and Kestler gets the translators (valued at $200 million). The Smiths would like Kestler to stop using the Calvary Chapel "brand" in connection with his church, but they may need to sue him (again) to make that happen.

It's bad enough that everyone involved in CSN feels comfortable enough to squat on so much spectrum for such narrow-minded purposes. But the manipulation of women in this saga, for sex and for revenge, turns the stomach and says more about the main players than clever navigation of the FCC's licensing system ever could.

2/25/07 - Clear Channel Buyout Update [link to this story]

The wheels are well in motion to take Clear Channel private. Shareholders will vote on the deal March 21. They're being offered $37.60 for each share of stock they own, which is about a dollar and small change more than it's currently trading for, and near the 52-week high, though just 41% of what CCU stock was worth back in its heyday, 1999.

Clear Channel's executives are obviously urging all shareholders to approve the buyout (they call it a "merger"), as it represents the best option to "maximize shareholder value" given "extensive review of available strategic alternatives, taking into careful account the continued challenges in the broadcasting sector and...recent growth in the domestic outdoor [advertising] business, as well as future growth opportunities."

Clear Channel has already begun transferring the FCC licenses of its radio and TV stations to a private holding company (BT Triple Crown Merger Co., Inc.) controlled by its pending private-equity owners. The deadline for bids on the hundreds of stations slated for divestiture just passed; it hopes to complete all sales by June, though there is at least one complaint pending at the FCC to stop the license-transfer side of the deal, not to mention some shareholder resistance and possible legal wrinkles to deal with.

Keep in mind that Clear Channel is just the latest in a string of private-equity acquisitions in the media industry more generally, a trend that definitely calls for closer, more systemic scrutiny.

2/19/07 - Public Interest Obligations for Digital Radio? [link to this story]

When TV broadcasters were given access to new spectrum in order to establish digital channels late in the last decade, the grants were contingent on broadcasters using the spectrum-windfall in ways that served the public interest. This might include things like opening up a slice of each DTV channel to public access, or obligating DTV stations to produce "public-interest" programming with news, educational, or other civic-minded value.

The problem is that while the FCC's been talking about public-interest obligations for DTV broadcasters for 12 years now, it hasn't adopted any explicit rule defining what those obligations are, and how stations must comply with them. Meanwhile, DTV stations are going on the air and the spectrum they use - touted as having the capacity to offer as many as six different channels - is being utilized however broadcasters see fit, and this often has nothing to do with providing more free over-the-air content.

In response to a question about digital broadcasting proffered by the Senate Commerce Committee on February first, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein made an interesting comment about the status of the agency's rulemaking on the adoption of digital radio. The item appeared on the FCC's monthly meeting agenda at least once last year but was pulled from consideration at the last minute. Adelstein seems to suggest this is because there's haggling over what AM/FM broadcasters will do with the additional spectrum they get when they deploy the "HD Radio" system:

Right now before us is an item pending where we're trying...just to ask the question, should we apply any additional public interest obligations to broadcasters as they get additional spectrum to broadcast on the radio....Is there any public interest obligations to go with that? And so far, we don't have a majority to support...even asking the question, should we do a rule?

It seems a bit backward to be asking for program-based public interest obligations from digital radio broadcasters, especially since the HD Radio technology itself has not yet been proven to accommodate more than two decent-sounding program streams on a single frequency, and some broadcasters may sacrifice multicasting capability for the ability to serve up non-audio content instead. Not to mention there is no analog cutoff-date like there is on the TV side of things, so there is no compelling reason for listeners to rush out and buy new digital receivers for $200+ each.

A good place for the FCC to start would be by refusing to exclusively endorse a sh*tty standard and demonstrating an openness to the exploration of alternatives.

2/15/07 - FCC 2008 Proposed Budget: No Surprises [link to this story]

From the enforcement perspective, the Enforcement Bureau's proposed 2008 outlay comes to $46.4 million - this is an increase of just under $2 million from FY 2006-07. The Enforcement Bureau constitutes the second-largest FCC bureau/office in terms of budget size (second only to the Office of Managing Director).

While the number of full-time equivalent employees in Enforcement stays constant through the period, some shuffling within the ranks does occur; FTEs devoted to the goals of "spectrum" and "media" will increase, while those devoted to "public safety/homeland security" will decrease.

The FCC's $313 million proposal also includes $1 million to upgrade 12 of the agency's 76 mobile direction-finding vehicles; according to the proposal, "twenty-eight vehicles, or 36% of the FCC’s MDDF fleet, are more than seven years old and eleven vehicles, or approximately 15%...are more than ten years old."

2/12/07 - FCC Creates Another LPFM Loophole, Courts to Consider a Third [link to this story]

Right at about the same time the FCC granted special temporary authority to a pirate station in Nevada to operate without a license, the agency told a group of irate listeners in Texas that they, too, could have a station if they wanted to.

How? Some 263 of them wrote letters to the FCC requesting it deny the transfer of KTPB-FM's license from a community college to the Educational Media Foundation. The well-known godcaster will flip the station's format from classical to one of its "alternative" offerings.

Seemingly impressed by the outpouring of support for classical music, thought the FCC denied the listeners' objections to the license transfer it entertained the option of them applying for an LPFM station license in order to "fill any programming void left by the sale of the station to EMF and change in format that EMF may make."

The LPFM license application must be filed within 90 days, but the FCC's already even identified a transmitter site and open frequency for the new station, which will save the applicants some time and energy should they choose to pursue this special opportunity.

Perhaps these piecemeal, instance-specific LPFM authorizations signal a change in policy toward the expansion of the service - instead of opening up opportunities nationwide, the FCC would rather citizens take the initiative. The Radio Goldfield case is certainly not the first of its kind: in 2002 talk radio giant Don Imus got dinged for running an unlicensed microradio station on his ranch in New Mexico, and may have sorted matters out with some help from Sen. John McCain.

In another loophole dimension, San Francisco Liberation Radio has a Valentine's Day date with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, contesting the method by which the FCC seized the station's gear in 2003. According to the station's lawyers, the FCC

utilized a maritime law to conduct the raid without giving advance notice to the station, arguing that a radio station is like a ship that may sail away in the night. The station, with a volunteer staff of nearly 60 people, was located in a house firmly rooted upon land and posed no danger of trying to "escape," nor was it interfering with any other station’s broadcasts. It had been broadcasting at 100 watts in San Francisco for 11 years and had been in consistent contact with the FCC regarding licensing matters.

The oral argument will be conducted at the UC Berkeley School of Law and is open to the public.

2/9/07 - New Licensing Loophole Involves Influential Senator [link to this story]

"Radio Goldfield," a pirate station run by seasoned citizen Rod Moses out of his trailer in Goldfield, Nevada (population 440) has received special temporary authority from the FCC to operate a 100-watt FM outlet without an official license until such time as the FCC opens another LPFM filing window.

How did he do it? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's ringing endorsement, in correspondence to the agency, probably sealed the deal:

Radio Goldfield programming brought regular weather reports to this high-desert area of Nevada, where conditions can abruptly change in often times dramatic ways....Radio Goldfield programming also included timely and reliable information on law enforcement, public safety and school activities that helped the residents of Goldfield stay informed and engaged in their community. Moreover the station broadcasted Sunday religious services that were listened to faithfully by those living too far from a place of worship or those simply too feeble to make a weekly journey there practicable.

That, plus oldies pumped from an MP3 player. Rock on, Rod. I can't find record of this STA on file in the FCC's databases, but Moses did receive a warning letter from the Enforcement Bureau in August of last year for broadcast piracy. He shut down within 24 hours of contact, however, which appears to have helped his cause (yet also runs somewhat contrary to LPFM law).

Special Temporary Authority status typically runs for six-month periods, with a "limited number" of renewals available. Does this mean the FCC may consider opening up another LPFM license filing window in the relatively near future?

This is unprecedented, and the concept is worth further exploitation.

2/4/07 - Translator Licensees Spike, Get Cited [link to this story]

The FCC has released year-end broadcast station totals. Of the 17,968 licensed radio stations in the nation, 4,131 (23%) are translator stations. FM translators may outnumber the number of AM stations by the end of this year; if the NAB's proposal to give away translators to AM stations gains traction, the number of translators could quintuple.

Interestingly, the year-to-year totals of translators don't seem to reflect the flood of new translators that have gone on the air since 2003. A recent slew of Notices of Apparent Liability released by the FCC for failure to timely renew station licenses somewhat does. Stations have been threatened with fines ranging between $1,500 and $8,500 for the infraction, with penalties inflated for those stations that technically operated without a license when their present one expired. In every case, the FCC has renewed each station's license without further question.

2/1/07 - Army Surrenders Reporter's Subpoena [link to this story]

Though the court-marital of Army Lieutenant Ehren Watada is still slated to go down next week, independent journalist Sarah Olson will not be called upon to testify. Two charges of "conduct unbecoming an officer," stemming from anti-war statements Lt. Watada made to Olson that she subsequently published, have been dropped. Watada stipulates to his public utterances being true, which means the Army may still use them against him in retaliation for speaking out against the occupation of Iraq.

The Army only capitulated after Defend the Press caught the eyes of the media more generally. This produced a flood of coverage of Olson's ensnarement in the Watada case and generated a spike of angry correspondence to the presiding judge in Watada's trial.

It's nice to see that a demonstration of occasional backbone from "professional" journalists can still make small differences; it's disappointing that most of them are still neglecting the story behind the story.