Native stations aim to double their number

Native stations aim to double their number

An outreach campaign by Native Public Media is spreading the word among tribal groups about a rare opportunity for tribes and other communities to claim a share of FM spectrum.

Between Oct. 12 and 19, for the first time in seven years, the FCC will accept applications for new full-power noncommercial educational (NCE) FM stations. Native Public Media, a project of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters that advocates on behalf of the 33 Native-owned stations and others yet to be launched, aims to double the number of Native-owned outlets by helping tribes ace their FCC paperwork.

“The NCE window is a huge opportunity for Native communities to grow their media capacity and to diminish the media divide that continues to keep Native Americans from having their stories told,” said Loris Taylor, NPM president and former g.m. of KUYI on the Hopi reservation in Arizona.

[The FCC will hold an informational meeting for Native groups on the opportunity to apply for FM channels July 10-11 in Albuquerque, N.M. See the commission's announcement online. The workshop will also alert Native leaders to the oncoming DTV transition.]

Native Public Media (previously called the Center for Native American Public Radio) operates as a resource center and policy advocate for Native American media, and its leaders have been talking up the FM channel opportunity at tribal conferences, said Peggy Berryhill, director of services and planning.

“We really want Native America to have its own voice,” she said, a voice that is “for the community, for health and safety issues, and for culture.”

Among the 33 Native stations operating today, six are licensed to tribes, Berryhill said. Others are operated by school boards and other nonprofits.

To help Native applicants compete for noncommercial channels, NPM recently asked the FCC to revise its point system for evaluating applications by awarding an extra point to federally recognized tribes who apply for licenses.
The FCC’s point system comes into play when more than one group applies for a noncommercial frequency.

pplicants are awarded various numbers of points if they meet certain criteria—if they meet the definition of a “local entity” or don’t own other local radio stations, according to a briefing paper written by communications attorney Michael Couzens. Schools and colleges that operate stations can qualify for ownership diversity points if they are extending services to additional campuses. Applicants can also earn points for proposing engineering designs that would serve a bigger area than competing applicants. The applicant with the most points wins, though other criteria come into play in case of a tie.

The proposal to award a point to applications of Native communities “would make a significant difference in tribes’ access to spectrum in the upcoming NCE window,” wrote NPM attorney Erin Dozier in a May 29 letter to the FCC. “The establishment of such a point would be a step towards acknowledging tribal sovereignty, and would promote longstanding Commission policy goals in the provision of broadcast service, including competition, localism and diversity.”

NPM also asked the FCC to consider limiting the number of applications a single entity can file during a particular window, a proposal advanced by pubcasting organizations and noncommercial radio advocates in an April 4 letter to the commission.

The application limit, which the commission itself rejected in 2001 when the point system was being developed, could be imposed by FCC staff, according to attorney John Crigler of Garvey Schubert Barer, who filed the letter on behalf of 11 pubradio and noncom advocates.

In its initial rejection of the limit, the commission said, “We don’t need to [impose a limit] because the point system will discourage speculative filings,” Crigler said. But the commission did authorize the staff to cap applications by public notice if warranted.

“Our point, which I suspect will carry weight, is to avoid problems created with translator proceeding in March 2003,” Crigler said. More than 13,000 applications were filed seeking spectrum for translator stations, 9,000 of which were alleged to have come from two groups, he said. “That gummed up the process.” The FCC froze the proceeding to investigate complaints of foul play and, in the meantime, low-power FM advocates and AM broadcasters have challenged the FCC to reconsider its priorities for assigning translator frequencies, Crigler said. The proceeding is still on hold.

“The one thing [FCC officials] don’t want to do is create another mess,” Crigler said, referring to the upcoming FM application window. “They don’t want another seven years to pass before there’s another open window. They want to open windows fairly regularly.”

“That’s the real cure to the gold-rush mentality,” Crigler said. “If people think it’s going to be another decade before they can file for something, they’re going to file for everything in sight.”

Spectrum rush

Native Public Media is not the only group prospecting for FM spectrum. With NFCB it’s part of the Radio for People Coalition that’s working to educate and mobilize grassroots groups about the filing window. The coalition also includes Pacifica Radio, Prometheus Radio Project, Future of Music Coalition, Common Frequency and Public Radio Capital.

“Prometheus is getting a large number of requests from interested people from all different kinds of social movements,” said Libby Reinish, full-power FM coordinator. Her office fields calls from “several hundred people a week,” but she can’t predict how many will apply. “Some don’t have funds to work with or a nonprofit to work through, or they don’t have a frequency in their town.”

To pinpoint the best opportunities for noncommercial radio, Public Radio Capital, a consulting group with expertise in signal expansion and financing, commissioned more than 150 engineering studies to determine what frequencies are available nationally, said Susan Harmon, managing director. Public Radio Capital is sharing the study results with coalition members as they’re completed.

Although pubcasting stations are its clients, PRC is trying to serve as an honest broker within the coalition. It will analyze channels sought by public or community broadcasters and “figure out who could really get it and how it will work in the point system,” Harmon said. “Religious broadcasters are likely to be very aggressive” in filing competing applications, she said.

To help with planning, PRC is raising funds from foundations to develop business strategies for key applicants, Harmon said. “For the channels that can’t be lost, we’re looking . . . to do astute business plans to deal with sustainability,” she said. “We don’t want organizations to get these channels but be unable to support them and have to sell them.”

She estimates that PRC must raise $500,000 for the work needed before the application deadline. “Beyond that, there will be issues of what each group needs to raise to build out the stations and so on.”

Meanwhile, NPR is surveying the landscape of public radio translators. Because full-service stations will have priority over translators in the application process, Crigler said, existing stations may need to protect their outlying signals by applying to upgrade them to full-power stations.

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