March of the Low-Band God Squad

This article was initially written for/published in the Wisconsinite, a now-defunct alt-biweekly newspaper in Madison, WI.
Under the guise of evangelism several religious broadcasting entities are mounting a full-scale invasion of the FM dial. This invasion exploits a couple of little-known provisions in FCC regulations that provide these broadcasters the opportunity to flood open frequencies with low-power transmitters. In very real terms these “godcasters” are crowding out the potential growth of new community radio stations.
Key to this ploy is a type of FM radio station known as a translator. Translator stations range in power levels from 1 to 250 watts and cannot air locally-produced programming. The FCC created the translator class of FM radio station initially to serve as a booster for full-power FM stations that operate in areas where terrain (like mountains) may block their signals.
Over the years many individual radio stations have applied for and received licenses to operate translators to extend or fill in gaps in their primary coverage area. In Madison, for example, Wisconsin Public Radio maintains a 10-watt FM translator station on 90.9 since WHAD-FM, The Ideas Network’s primary FM outlet (based in Milwaukee), does not provide adequate coverage to the Madison area and the next-closest nearest Ideas Network FM outpost, in Highland, cannot be reliably heard in Madison at all. Similar translators help boost or extend the reach of other WPR stations around the state.
Within the FCC’s rules governing FM translator stations there is an important distinction made between their use for commercial or noncommercial purposes. Commercial broadcasters are limited to using translators only to rebroadcast the signal of a “parent” full-power station. Thus it is impossible for a commercial broadcaster to place a translator out of the maximum receivable range of the full-power parent station’s signal. Noncommercial broadcasters, however, are not limited in this way. They may feed translator stations remotely – for example, via satellite. More importantly, unlike noncommercial full-power FM stations, noncom translators may be placed anywhere in the commercial part of the dial (they are not strictly limited to the channels between 88.1 and 91.9 MHz).
This regulatory loophole makes possible the creation of low-cost national radio networking using low-power FM stations. Such a network is cheap to run as there’s no personnel employed at the “affiliate” stations (save a contract broadcast engineer on call for emergencies), and the cost of applying for a translator license and maintaining the broadcast facilities themselves can be easily covered, oftentimes by a local benefactor. Because the stations are translators, not full-power FM stations, they can be squeezed into open spots on the dial where full-power FMs cannot go.
This is where religious radio has found its niche. There are several decidedly evangelical radio networks thriving in the United States. These include the Calvary Satellite Network, operated by Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls, Idaho (since 1993 two church-owned stations there have been parlayed into a network of more than 300 translator stations throughout the country) and the California-based Educational Media Foundation (operates two contemporary music networks – Christian pop K-LOVE and Christian alternative Air-1 – heard on a smattering of full-power stations and more than 350 translators).
Donor-sponsored radio is big business, too: the Educational Media Foundation nearly tripled its revenue between 1999 and 2002, from $13.4 million to $35.9 million. No religious broadcast conglomerate can hold a candle to a Viacom or Clear Channel, but collectively they constitute a “shadow empire” of sorts, programming thousands of radio signals across the nation, with an “industry revenue” running into the hundreds of millions of dollars. There are dozens of other Christian broadcast outfits, many with their own networks of FM translator stations that number into the dozens or hundreds. They range the theological gamut from Roman Catholic to Southern Baptist, although the largest tend to transcend denomination in their desire to appeal to a mass “contemporary” audience.
Expansion of this radio niche exploded in the early 1990s and continued until 1997, when the FCC froze the issuance of new FM translator station licenses. The reasons for this freeze are not completely clear, but it is clear that the halt in the growth of translator networks most certainly preserved some useable FM spectrum which the FCC sought to utilize when it created a low power FM community radio (LPFM) station service in 2000. Unlike translators, local programming is a cornerstone of LPFM stations – yet they are limited in power to 100 watts and must operate under stricter channel-placement guidelines than translator stations. More than 400 LPFM stations are now on the air nationwide.
Further expansion of LPFM community radio is now under threat from an invasion of new translator stations – and it is religious broadcasting that leads this crusade. In March, 2003 the FCC opened a small filing window for new FM translator license applications – the first in six years. It received more than 13,000 applications: if all of them would have been approved it would have doubled the number of licensed radio stations in the U.S. overnight. Among the applicants (with the number filed) were Calvary Chapel (385) and Educational Media Foundation (875), along with two new entities that outpaced all others: “Edgewater Broadcasting” (1,766) and “Radio Assist Ministry, Inc.” (2,454).
In Wisconsin alone these last two applicants have received permits to construct 28 FM translator stations so far. This includes FCC permission to occupy two frequencies in Green Bay and Park Falls, along with several ultra-low power translator stations (some broadcasting with as little as four watts) in places like Appleton, Black River Falls, Omro, Platteville, Spooner, Stevens Point, and Whitewater.
Yet the story gets more curious: Edgewater Broadcasting and Radio Assist Ministry are the products of a former employee of the Calvary Satellite Network, and at present he appears to be the sole employee/owner. CSN has been quietly yet forcefully disavowing any connection to the upstart engaged in a such a blatant spectrum land-grab (while conducting their own).
REC Networks, an Arizona-based advocate for LPFM community radio, recently issued preliminary results from a study comparing the FCC’s approval of new translator applications against a sample of census data involving 10,000 communities, representing more than 35.2 million people. Because of the flood of FM translators being granted construction permits, more than 15% of the communities in the REC study have lost any hope of building their own truly local LPFM station. The affected communities, however, tend to be the larger ones in the sample – so they represent more than 11.4 million people who have lost a chance at meaningful access to the airwaves via the fledgling LPFM service. One of these affected is Beloit, which made REC’s top-100 list of largest communities cut out of LPFM due to the translator invasion.
Public criticism of “godcasting” brings predictable rejoinders from Christians who believe the criticism strikes at their faith more than the practices of their representatives on the radio – a persecution complex unjustified by the presence of the vast shadow industry that is religious radio via translator station. The numbers don’t lie, either: the majority of applications filed during the “Great Translator Invasion of 2003” came from religious broadcasters. Even within the LPFM service religious broadcasters have garnered a disproportionate share of the stations: about half are owned, operated by, or affiliated with religious groups (including Calvary Chapel).
When does evangelism cross the line into spectrum-hoarding, or are such practices justified in pursuit of some higher calling? It is also hypocritical of the FCC program to expand bona-fide community radio (in the form of LPFM) only to squelch it a few years later by allowing manipulative frequency-squatting done in the name of a deity.