NPR Punts on Godcaster Proliferation

This week NPR’s All Things Considered aired a story on the plight of WAVM, a 10-watt FM radio station run by the local high school in Maynard, Massachusetts. The station stands to be forced off the air by Living Proof, Inc., an evangelical broadcast outlet based in California. WAVM is the only local radio station available in Maynard and enjoys wide community support.
NPR’s Andrea Shea got totally hoodwinked about the interloper kicking WAVM off the dial.
Shea set up WAVM’s vulnerable situation by mentioning the demise of the 10-watt Class D FM station license, calling WAVM one of the “predecessors of today’s low power FM stations.” She says the FCC did away with Class D licenses in the 1970s the after the FM band “became crowded.”
The truth is that Class D licenses were done away with at the behest of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. The overwhelming majority of Class D licenses were held by schools and universities – the very locations public broadcasters hoped to use as sites for their affiliate stations. CPB/NPR argued that 10-watt stations were too weak to serve as effective affiliates for a nationwide public radio system.
Furthermore, Class D stations were typically student-run, utilized as on-air laboratories of sorts where broadcasters-in-training could practice the craft. As a result their programming did not meet the quality standards CPB/NPR had set for programming on the new network.
Based on these notions, CPB/NPR asserted that Class D stations were inefficient users of FM spectrum. The FCC agreed, promulgating a rule to phase out the Class D license in 1978. It gave stations until 1980 to upgrade their power or be left vulnerable to regulatory usurpation by a competing broadcaster, which is what is now happening to WAVM. To be fair, WAVM was granted the opportunity to upgrade its power and preserve its space on the dial but let it lapse.
Then comes Living Proof, Inc., which Shea characterizes as a “small” outfit, owning “four stations in the West.” Living Proof’s character in the story is Harry Martin, an “attorney” who “represents the religious broadcaster.”
This is the first red flag: Harry Martin was instrumental in facilitating the Great Translator Invasion of 2003. He represented several of the religious broadcast outlets that hoped to corner the market on thousands of FM station construction permits and, in some cases, sell them for large profits. He’s also the immediate past president of the Federal Communications Bar Association (FCBA), the trade group representing lawyers who specialize in communications law.
FCC records show Living Proof, Inc. actually holds more than 50 FM station licenses and construction permits, of which 29 have been assigned call letters. This includes seven stations in Massachusetts.
(Run the search yourself on REC Networks’ invaluable Broadcast Query: simply type “living proof” in the Party/Owner search field.)
Shea then reported that most of Living Proof’s programming in Massachusetts will be syndicated; to illustrate, she played an excerpt from a broadcast originated at Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, California. As previously noted, Calvary Chapel churches have been heavily involved in the hoarding of FM spectrum (of various flavors, including LPFM stations). The Calvary Satellite Network, co-founded by the Calvary Chapels of Costa Mesa and Twin Falls, ID, is one of the three largest FM translator-mongers in the country.
Living Proof, Inc. has also sold spectrum for profit. In California it sold two noncommercial station construction permits – one for a full-power FM station and one for a translator – to Horizon Christian Fellowship, a variant of the Calvary Chapel “brand,” for a cool $150,000. Horizon was a major client of those most egregiously involved in spectrum speculation and trafficking over the last 2+ years. Living Proof also “donated” one FM translator construction permit to Calvary Chapel of Running Springs, CA. Harry Martin filed the FCC paperwork on these deals.
These are just the transactions that can be conclusively documented. At one time Living Proof held scores of station construction permits – more than 100 to its name. Since then it has whittled down its holdings to just the few dozen it has today. Living Proof’s beneficiaries have, in many cases, been other Calvary Chapel churches.
(For further exploration, go back to REC’s Broadcast Query: type “living proof” in the Party/Owner search field and set the Party Type to “Applicant.”)
For example, according to REC’s records, in 2000 Living Proof applied for and received permission to construct a 100,000-watt FM station in Florida. The construction permit was subsequently transferred two and a half years later to Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale, which actually built the station. In 2003, Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale bought the rights to build a statewide network of FM translators to extend the reach of its flagship station throughout the state. That transaction was conducted through other spectrum speculators. Cost for the translator permits: $326,500. Yet Living Proof, Inc. gave away the rights to build the flagship?
One might surmise material ties between the Calvary Chapel octopus and Living Proof. Is the latter an intermediary, helping to facilitate the construction of turnkey broadcast networks on the cheap by snapping up permits to build stations for future use by the like-minded? The documentary trail is messy, and many of the puzzle-pieces are in disarray, but there’s smoke for sure.
And so, even though she had nearly eight minutes to explore WAVM’s plight and the spectrum-grab that put its existence in jeopardy, Andrea Shea noodled off on some scandal involving WAVM’s advisor and allegations of sexual assault, oblivious to who the players in her narrative actually were. The much larger story wisped enticingly under her nose and she got nary a whiff, oblivious, thanks to her framing of the instant conundrum as the novelty it is not.
Next up with a treatment of this admittedly complicated story is the Columbia Journalism Review, which has been digging for the last few months and will supposedly be publishing something soon. While the folks at CJR seem quite disciplined and much more thorough, I still worry whether the dots will get connected properly. Every time I explore this mess further I discover something which leads me to believe the collusion at play here is even more extensive and sophisticated than I realize.