Media Watch

Radio DMAFB Drama, Act II

When we last heard of this story ("Clarifying Clear Channel," Jan. 6), the Federal Communications Commission had dashed radio behemoth Clear Channel's hopes of closing Willcox's only FM radio station, KWCX (104.9 FM), so that it can have the frequency reassigned to Tucson. Or, more accurately, to a community called Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

That also meant the commission allotted 104.9 FM to Rural Pima Broadcasting, a group that says it wants to build a station in Sells, the capital city of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

KWCX's current owner, Chicago-based Lakeshore Media, has asked the FCC to reconsider the decision. Lakeshore is merely Clear Channel's water bearer in this case, because Lakeshore has agreed to sell KWCX for $2.5 million, and the deal has up to five years to close.

FCC staff rejected Lakeshore's original proposal because local competitor Journal Broadcasting had argued that moving the frequency to Tucson would create sizeable "white" and "gray" spaces--places where there is little or no radio reception--in Cochise County. Lakeshore's argument was that 10 existing stations already reach most of KWCX's coverage area, and two frequency allocations that had been spoken for--but were not yet in use--would cover the rest.

Since then, Cochise Broadcasting (one of former local radio player Ted Tucker's companies) has applied for construction permits to build a new FM station in Lordsburg, N.M., and to build new facilities for Douglas-based KCDQ in Tombstone. Lakeshore argues that the signal footprints from those two stations would resolve the loss of service, and therefore it's OK to reassign the frequency to the Tucson metro area.

Journal and Mesa-based REC Networks, which operates Internet radio networks and consults on low-power FM station plans, had also argued that D-M doesn't meet FCC standards for consideration as an independent community for license allotments.

In its ruling against Lakeshore last year, the FCC felt that the loss-of-signal issue alone was enough to torpedo the proposal, and it never addressed the "independent community" issue.

And that's unfortunate. At a simple level, it's unfair to commandeer one of a small town's two radio stations and haul it away to the big city. And this big city's radio market already has a ton of transmitters. A rough count puts it at 34, including two Phoenix stations that have enough listeners here to make a statistical dot on the Arbitron ratings.

The "independent community" rules make it bureaucratically incorrect to ask: "Doesn't Tucson have enough radio stations?" Yep. The table of allotments for Tucson is probably maxed out. But we'll always have Marana, Oro Valley and South Tucson, and so on and so on.

In some ways, the "independent community" approach has perverted the FCC's authority to license stations "in the public interest."

In the almost-old days--after Stromberg-Carlsons and before rampant cell phone technology--stations were required to meet certain minimum requirements for "public service time." Every minute of news, every 15-second announcement about the Mothers Against Miniscule Mitosis charity crafts fair, every talk and call-in show, was counted as part of the public-service obligation. If you were ever puzzled as a kid in 1968 when you dialed in KTKT or KIKX and got a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon instead of the Dearly Beloved's "Wait 'Till the Morning,"--well, on-air religious services counted as public-service time.

License renewal meant showing the feds what you really did to serve the community of licensure. And the FCC then took it seriously. If you've been around about 30 years, you might remember when KZAZ-TV (now KMSB) got a royal butt-chewing from the feds. Tucson's allotment was full, so the station was licensed for Nogales. But the studios were in Tucson. Most of the news was about Tucson. About the only mention of Nogales was in the station ID. Someone complained; the FCC growled, and Nogales got a public affairs show all its own.

Not any more. Few radio stations beyond the news-talk format carry much news (rather startling for those of us who can blame our news itch in part on John C. Scott and Tonie Stanton at Top 40s KTKT "with news at 25 and 55"). PSAs are as common as passenger pigeons, and it seems like religious services on-air are confined to religion-format stations.

If the FCC reverses itself on the "white space" issue, it will be interesting to see how the agency looks on Lakeshore/Clear Channel's arguments that D-M is an independent community--especially after the grand gaffe in their original filing, which describes the base as being "in Pima County adjacent to the city of Tucson." Actually, the city annexed the base in 1986.

Otherwise, Lakeshore makes some persuasive arguments that the base meets many of the FCC's criteria. D-M has a quasi-municipal government, health care and religious facilities, parks and recreation areas, fire and police services, retail services, its own ZIP code and a newspaper.

But then again, REC Networks argued that D-M is more of a "campus" environment, like a prison or a university, than a community. Look a little deeper at the D-M community, and you'll see REC's point. For example, D-M's hospital has no delivery rooms; laboring moms go to off-base hospitals. The Desert Airman is loaded with D-M and Air Force info, but it doesn't cover TUSD--which oversees the base schools.

Which brings us back to the issue of "independent community." Will a radio station "licensed in the public interest to serve Davis-Monthan Air Force Base" really do anything that's expressly connected with the D-M community? Or is this just a way for Clear Channel to pick up a 10th space in the local Arbitron book?

One last note: Lakeshore applied June 13 to renew KWCX's license. The window's wide open for public comments.