Religious broadcasting networks: The Clear Channel of low-power FM radio

Thursday, October 27th, 2005 @ 5:15 am | Current Events

A Boston-area high school radio station has been pushed off the air by a California-based religious broadcaster in a recent FCC ruling. Maynard High School’s WAVM-FM has been broadcasting for over 30 years, and dozens of student DJs have gone on to work in broadcasting careers.

WAVM recently applied for a signal strength increase from 10 to 250 watts; a process which allows other broadcasters to bid on their frequency. The FCC in turn awarded WAVM’s frequency to Living Proof, Inc on the basis that they would be able to “provide first or second primary [noncommercial radio] service to the largest number of people in the community.”

Organized, monied religious broadcasting networks have been cannibalizing the non-commercial and low-power spectrum across the country for a number of years. Broadcasters such as Calvary Chapel (CSN International), American Family Association Radio, and EMF Broadcasting have built cheap networks of low-powered FM translators, which were originally intended to boost local radio signals in weak areas. These translators are used to retransmit nationally syndicated religious programming in areas where the broadcasters often have no local presence.

CSN Int’l, the largest of these broadcasters, currently operates 361 of these translators across the country. The Boston Globe article linked above notes that the president of Living Proof has ties to Calvary Chapel, which has previously been linked to Radio Assist and Edgewater Broadcasting, two large Christian broadcasting networks owned by the same ex-CSN employee.

Radio Assist/Edgewater applied for over 4000 radio translator construction permits during a five-day application window in 2003. The broadcaster has since been awarded over 1000 of these (free) permits, over 80 of which have been sold or traded for profit. DIYmedia reports that Radio Assist/Edgewater made over $800,000 trading translator permits, mostly to other Christian stations and networks.

Community and media activists have been pushing for years for low-power FM (LPFM), a format that would allow small non-commercial community stations to develop and prosper. The FCC approved the LPFM format five years ago, and since then, several hundred LPFM stations have sprouted up across the country. About half of these stations belong to churches and religious groups.

Activists fear that the rush of large religious broadcast networks for FM translator permits endangers the budding LPFM movement. The FCC instituted a freeze on new translator permits in March, in response to petitions from LPFM activist groups.

Another strategy of religious broadcasters has been to attempt to piggyback on small non-profit educational frequencies, many belonging to schools and colleges who are unable to broadcast 24 hours a day. These broadcasters are attempting to take advantage of an obscure rule that can force stations to share their airtime if they broadcast for less than 12 hours a day. Fortunately, these can be overcome if stations purchase automation systems that allow them to broadcast 24/7.

The WAVM debacle illustrates that the large religious broadcasters’ urge to evangelize comes at the expense of non-profit, community and educational stations. The FCC’s tacit acceptance of this situation serves to blur the boundary between government and organized religion. Churches have as much right to be on the air as anybody, but the actions of groups such as CSN, Radio Assist and Edgewater violate the spirit of non-profit community broadcasting.

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