A Christian station here, a Christian station there. But together, religious broadcasters account for well over half of the low-power FM licenses granted by the FCC. And now, they've banded together to create de facto networks. Does this sort of large-scale mobilization by religious broadcasters defeat the intent of low-power legislation? Bob puts the question to San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Joe Garofoli.
BOB GARFIELD: One wrinkle in the lower power FM fight has been who is actually being granted licenses. Religious broadcasters, largely Christian, have accounted for more than half of the licenses granted, and with space on the dial scarce, most of those licenses have gone to suburban areas instead of urban neighborhoods - again favoring religious broadcasters and excluding the minorities many community broadcasters had hoped to reach. Joe Garifoli is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He's written about this trend. Joe, welcome to the show.
JOE GARIFOLI: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Why have religious broadcasters been so much more successful at getting these licenses?
JOE GARIFOLI: Well, they've been much more organized than many of the community groups in applying for the licenses and finding out when they're becoming available. And a number of churches have applied and used similar applications - almost identical applications. And some people have objected to that. There's a Berkeley attorney out here who led an effort to get the FCC to dismiss about two dozen Calvary Church-related groups from around the country, and the reason was - this was what the FCC said - it was there's nothing in their statement to distinguish these applicants from other Calvary Chapel applicants who've filed identical applications for licenses. In other words, filing boilerplate applications. The problem with this is that this creates kind of a de facto radio network, and that defeats the purpose of what low power was intended to do, and that was to create some truly community-based radio.
BOB GARFIELD: Just to be clear, it's not that religious content is showing up on low-powered FM that has anyone nervous. It's the idea that community radio is being expropriated by network radio, which, by definition, is not locally generated.
JOE GARIFOLI: The point is that it kind of defeats the purpose, if you have a network of anything. If you have a network of low power radio, and someone said you, [LAUGHS] you'd wind up getting the same crap you get on the big stations. It would be the same kind of cookie-cutter format. Some of the Christian stations are offering up to 16 hours a day of pre-packaged programming. There was a conference a couple of months ago of Calvary stations, and I talked to the person who was heading that, and he said, you know, you'd be surprised that a lot of the stations don't want all that. They want to have their own programming. But there is the opportunity out there to get kind of syndicated programming, if you will.
BOB GARFIELD: The religious programming does seem to be popular, once it does get on the air. Who's listening?
JOE GARIFOLI: There's a 2002 survey of a thousand adults, and they found that 52 percent of people had listened to Christian radio in the previous month. A lot of the Christian groups, when you have a low-power station, you can use your congregation, you have a built-in audience, and you have people who can help to fund the station - keep it afloat. A lot of community groups - they don't necessarily have that. They, they have an audience, but they may not have the network to continue funding it. So that's why a lot of these stations have gotten on the air and stayed on the air and thrived.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in your piece you wrote about a station in El Dorado County, California called KFOK, which meets the diversity ideal in two ways - first, by just being there and being another voice, but within its own voice, having multiple personalities of its own. Tell me about KFOK.
JOE GARIFOLI: Yeah, this, this would be kind of the poster child for what the legislation envisioned when it was created a few years ago. Here's a station where you have, you know, Democracy Now, a public affairs show. You have the Calvary Chapel music, a religious music on Sundays. You have a heavy metal show. You have a program called Hillbilly Humor with Sean, on there, next to kind of a wonky discussion of the water issues in town. And you have 50 underwriters from the community who are footing the bill for the 10,000 dollars a year it costs to keep the station on the air. But still, you know, this is a rural area, and it's an area that's more conservative than the San Francisco Bay area. So you have folks who don't necessarily agree with everything on the air. And what the station's co-founder and one of the underwriters was telling me is that you don't have to agree with everything that's on there. That's the point. A lot of people in the community didn't feel that their voice was being heard on big radio or in mass media, and this was a way to get it heard. Low power radio, at least at this station, could be one of the few places in our culture these days where you have differing viewpoints coming out of the same media outlet.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's just say that Christian broadcasters, in a de facto network, have defeated the entire intent of the legislation. Is there anything anybody can do about it?
JOE GARIFOLI: Well, yes. There is a bill that has been introduced already this year by Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Maria Cantwell of Washington and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, and that would make it easier for low power stations to get into the big city markets, would require less frequency space on the dial between stations. So you might have some of these community groups now able to get a voice and grab a piece of the media pie. The FCC backs that bill, and they say that the low power stations don't cause interference on bigger stations frequencies.
BOB GARFIELD: You, you mentioned that the FCC had looked at boilerplate, multiple applications.
JOE GARIFOLI: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: And taken a dim view of them. I just want to know what, in general, they're doing to take care of the spirit of the law if not the letter.
JOE GARIFOLI: They are definitely attuned to that. They kick back a lot of the boilerplate applications, and recently there was another allegation that a couple of Idaho companies made money selling government issued permits to religious broadcasters. Churches weren't accused of doing anything wrong, but there was sort of an allusion of this sort of networking of low power frequencies, and again, that's still just being investigated at this point.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Joe, thanks very much.
JOE GARIFOLI: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Joe Garifoli is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle.