Minnesota: White Earth tribe, others, hope for noncommercial radio chance

By M.R. KROPKO Associated Press Writer
The Associated Press - Saturday, April 14, 2007

 
CLEVELAND

Leah Prussia likes to imagine a radio station connecting the 837,000-acre White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota.

"For us the big thing about it is community building, a way to link villages, woods, lakes and miles, and use it to discuss our local issues, traditions, culture and preserve the Ojibwe language," said Prussia, deputy director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project.

They could soon get their chance.

Nonprofit community groups, schools and churches this year will get their first opportunity since 2000 to apply for licenses for full-power, noncommercial/educational FM radio stations. The Federal Communications Commission stopped taking those applications so it could catch up on its backlog and revise its system for reviewing them.

The agency says it expects to begin taking requests again in the fall.

Minnesota's Ojibwe tribe has been seeking grants to build and operate a station. The Cleveland-based United Church of Christ has been publicizing the radio opportunity in public meetings, e-mails and its newsletter.

"Our strong hope is to get some of these licenses into the hands of people in rural states who are committed to reclaiming the unifying and healing role of religion, which is so needed in our nation today," the 1.3 million-member UCC said in an e-mail in January to its churches and others interested in noncommercial radio.

Some stations specialize in a music style, such as classical or the jazz and blues of WWOZ in New Orleans, which was among Hurricane Katrina's victims but has since recovered, largely through listeners' support. Others broadcast school board meetings or give college students on-air experience with a mix of music, sports, poetry and public service programs.

Noncommercial/educational stations are usually found at the low end of FM frequencies spectrum (87.9 to 91.9) and depend on public or institutional support. Because there's a lack of noncommercial space on the radio dial in cities, opportunities more often exist in remote or rural areas.

"In this era of increasingly non-local, hyper-commercialized, homogenized radio, it becomes especially important that the FCC preserve and advance programs that give great weight to diversity of ownership and localism," Michael J. Copps, an FCC commissioner, said on the agency's Web site.

The applications review will be based on a newly established points system that gives priority to applicants who will provide local programming rather than syndicated content. After reviewing the applications the FCC will decide how many licenses to give out.

The FCC says there are 2,817 such full-power stations in the United States, including more than 630 National Public Radio affiliates, compared with about 11,000 commercial stations, according to the FCC.

Full power means transmission power above 100 watts and a broadcast range of more than 3.5 miles.

The UCC expects many kinds of formats to be proposed by applicants, not just faith-based, said the UCC's Rev. Bob Chase, who oversees media issues for the denomination.

"As communities have a voice on the airwaves, they gain an identity," Chase said. "For us, it becomes a question of social justice, trying to give voice to the voiceless."

But the UCC, which often takes strong, liberal-leaning stands on social issues, has some critics.

"The United Church of Christ is a big player in this, but I think they oppose most religious broadcasting that has a conservative, evangelical perspective," said Patrick Vaughn, general counsel for American Family Radio, a Tupelo, Miss.-based Christian broadcasting organization.

Although the licenses are free, costs for a station could limit the number of applicants. Legal, engineering and equipment startup costs typically could total up to $250,000, said Matthew Lasar, media history professor at University of California at Santa Cruz and editor of a blog on FCC issues.

Adding to what could be a flood of new applications are the hundreds of low-power noncommercial stations that could look to increase power and cover a much wider area through a full-power signal.

Jimmy Jarrell, in Auburn, Ala., wants to open a noncommercial radio station in rural Alabama similar to WPIL. He holds the license for the listener-supported noncommercial radio station in Heflin, Ala. featuring gospel, country and bluegrass music.

"I'd be looking to have 10 stations like that, if I could do it," he said.

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On the Net:

Federal Communications Commission: http://www.fcc.gov/

United Church of Christ: http://www.ucc.org/ocinc/