Completing the Cycle of Translator Abuse: Hopping Madness

The abuse of FM translators continues unabated, and may be more insidious than anyone realizes – including (and especially) the FCC.
First there was Clark Parrish, the mastermind who swamped the FCC’s license-application system during a 2003 filing window for new translators. He applied for thousands of stations under the guise of two shell corporations – Radio Assist Ministry and Edgewater Broadcasting – with the intent of selling them off to other broadcasters so that he could build his own full-power religious radio empire with the proceeds.
The FCC, in response to outcry over such blatant sentimentalizing, froze a goodly portion of his translator applications in 2005. The entire mess remains unresolved today, though the FCC must untangle it before moving forward with an expansion of the LPFM radio service.
Since then, commercial and public broadcasters have also gotten creative with the use of translators. In 2009, AM broadcasters successfully lobbied for a rule change that allows them to rebroadcast their programming on up to five FM translators per AM station – all couched as a “tool” to provide “relief” from the increasingly RF-dirty AM band.
Since 2008, FM broadcasters have shredded the notion that FM translators provide a secondary broadcast service by employing them as outlets for FM-HD program streams. In this case, translators are effectively marketed as “new” stand-alone radio stations, since hardly anybody bothers to listen to an actual HD Radio signal.
Recently, a key tactic which enables such practices has come to light. It’s called translator-hopping, and it works like this: a broadcast entrepreneur acquires a permit for an FM translator in some dinky radio market. He then files a series of minor modifications to its license with the FCC to move the translator closer/into a larger, more lucrative market.
The FCC classifies modifications to a broadcaster’s license as major or minor. As a general rule, it is much more difficult to get the FCC to approve a major licensing change than it is a minor one. Thus, translator-hoppers file a series of minor changes to effect what is really a major change. This is a long-standing loophole – but with the massive proliferation of translators over the last ten years it, too, is getting stretched.
Location hops like these are incremental and transitory. In some cases, the FM translator isn’t even properly constructed, just set up temporarily and on the air long enough to satisfy the deadline the FCC gives for stations to implement such license modifications. Another hop is then applied for (and granted), and before long the translator’s reached its target destination, where it can serve market incumbents (like AM or FM-HD broadcasters) or as a “rimshot” station providing fractional (but fiscally attractive) coverage of the market for a new entrant.
Last month, the FCC opened up an investigation into Radio Power, Inc. directly related to the practice of translator-hopping. The case takes place in my own backyard, as the translator was initially established to “serve” my hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin. However, over a two-year period, applications were filed with the FCC to move the station six times (a distance of 69 miles, and nearly ten channels down the FM dial) into Milwaukee, the state’s largest city.
The FCC’s inquiry suggests that Radio Power may have never actually set up the translator at the sites it applied to operate from; at the very least, it suspects that the translator never operated for a meaningful amount of time at any of them until it got closer to its intended destination.
This particular instance of translator-hopping wouldn’t have even tripped the FCC’s trigger were it not for an interference complaint involving a Chicago-area station and some follow-up sleuthing by concerned constituencies in the Milwaukee radio market.
Radio Power, Inc., is owned by Tim Martz, the president of Martz Communications. Martz Communications owns full-power stations in New York and Pennsylvania. Radio Power, however, appears to have “satellite offices” scattered throughout the United States – FCC correspondence in this particular case is addressed to a dilapidated suite in Reno, Nevada.
Radio Power’s primary business seems to be acquiring and moving FM translator stations for use as FM-HD program rebroadcasters, leasing access to its translators as analog outlets for digital programming. This is not the first time Radio Power has come to the FCC’s attention regarding such dealings, either. Just last October, Martz et. al. were ordered to shut down an FM translator in a Detroit suburb for causing interference to a full-power station.
In both cases, Martz acquired his translators from none other than Clark Parrish. The Detroit-area station was sold to Martz by Radio Assist Ministry in 2009 for a cool $40,000, while the Wisconsin translator, first licensed to Edgewater Broadcasting in 2004, became a Radio Power property in 2010 in a deal worth $42,000. (In the same deal, Radio Power bought another translator from Edgewater, located in Mendota, Illinois for $36,000.)
Of the Beloit translator’s six hops to Milwaukee which the FCC is now investigating, the first two were engineered by Edgewater. But the FCC’s only exploring the tip of the iceberg.
A cursory search of the agency’s databases turns up 10 FM translators licensed to Radio Power in eight states (Illinois; Michigan (2); Minnesota (2); Mississippi; Missouri; Pennsylvania; Texas; and Wisconsin).
Nine of these translators were purchased by Tim Martz (Radio Power) from Clark Parrish (Radio Assist Ministry/Edgewater Broadcasting) in deals cumulatively worth more than $225,000. Radio Power’s tenth translator was acquired from Horizon Christian Fellowship, another notable trafficker, for $7,500 – with options to purchase another four stations.
Interestingly, four of Radio Power’s 10 translators are listed as “silent,” or not currently on the air. Martz may just be waiting for prospective users to come along; meanwhile, Radio Power will maneuver hops for them toward a profitable market where they are more likely to be leased.
Adding insult to injury, Radio Power had the gall to file comments in 2009 against the expansion of the LPFM service, claiming that such a move would “prevent the licensing of new FM translator stations in or the relocation of existing translator stations to urbanized areas, resulting in the denial of improved service to the public.” Translation: expanding LPFM would interfere with Radio Power’s business model, which involves abusing the FCC’s translator rules for profit.
The decade-long growth in demand for FM translators has greatly inflated their value, creating a vibrant marketplace for such stations that has directly led to the sort of corruption-of-process that’s so prevalent today. The transactional cycle is clear: a religious broadcaster speculating in FM translators sells them to a commercial broadcaster hoping to build a fleet of small rent-a-stations to serve beleaguered HD broadcasters. This most definitely warps the original intent of the FM translator service beyond recognition.
All of this is but one example of the FM translator market in action. It comes as no surprise that those who plumb FCC regulations for a living at the behest of the broadcast industry find nothing wrong with this state of affairs. Although the agency is poised to address some aspects of this abuse in its upcoming rulemaking on LPFM, it’s unlikely to make changes substantive enough to put an end to it.