Some four years after applying for licenses for new radio stations in Helena, two local groups say they’re still stuck in a bureaucratic tangle involving the Federal Communications Commissioners and a group of mostly religious organizations interested trying to establish or upgrade stations. And it could be years before it’s all sorted out and the new local stations ever broadcast.
“We’re kind of in limbo,” said David Highness, chairman of Last Chance Public Radio Association, the group that holds the license for the local translator of Yellowstone Public Radio at 96.7 FM and supports Montana Public Radio and Bozeman-based KGLT-FM, and is seeking a license for a new, locally programmed FM station.
In 2007, the FCC accepted applications for new full-power noncommercial stations on the far left side of the FM dial.
Several groups submitted what the FCC calls “mutually exclusive” applications for licenses in Montana, meaning they could not all be granted without interference or overlap with one another.
For service to the Helena area, in September 2010 the FCC prioritized the applications and declared a tie between Last Chance and Calvary Chapel of Helena, and called for the two to work out a time-share agreement for the frequency.
“Which I think is quite humorous,” said the Rev. Tom Cox of Calvary Chapel, imagining radio listeners hearing religious programming for a while, followed suddenly by NPR-style programming on the same frequency. “We all know that their political end of the spectrum is just perhaps not congruent with ours.”
Highness said that if Last Chance were to get the license, it probably would not be an NPR affiliate because Helenans already can hear NPR programming through Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. The group has filed a plan with the FCC for a station that would include local programming, possibly in partnership with Carroll College, which currently broadcasts with limited power on the 88.5 FM frequency in question.
Highness and Cox both say an engineering plan has been developed that would allow broadcasting by some of the applicants. but there are some holdups, mainly related to money that some of the groups could get paid for the expenses they’ve incurred so far in the application process.
“It appeared there was a technical settlement, but the ones that would get licenses couldn’t agree on the payouts to the dismissed applicants,” said Harry Martin, a Washington, D.C.-area lawyer representing Calvary Chapel.
Also, one of the religious groups has challenged the FCC’s tabulation that produced the tie between Last Chance and Calvary Chapel. If the FCC were to dismiss that challenge and finalize its decision, the clock could start ticking for Last Chance and Calvary Chapel to reach an agreement — and still also require the agreement of several of the other parties so that no stations suffer interference.
“If you don’t come up with a shared-time agreement, they’ll impose one on you,” said Highness. “Until they rule, there’s still a possibility of coming up with our own settlement, but I don’t have a lot of confidence that that’s going to happen.”
The other groups include several small local organizations as well as Family Stations Inc., which controls dozens of stations nationwide. That group gained attention this year for its prediction that the world would end May 21, and then another prediction that the world would end in October.
Family Stations is applying for a station in Bozeman that could mean interference between it and the Helena stations, were all the applications approved.
“We have never had any direct contact with either Calvary Chapel or Last Chance,” Linda Adams, a technical consultant with the group, said in an email response to inquiries. “We are continuing to investigate the potential of a settlement via one of the other applicants that originated the settlement possibility between all mutually exclusive applicants.”
She did not respond to a request for further clarification.
Family Stations is already licensed to operate stations or translators in Shepherd, Billings and Butte, plus two in Great Falls and one in Black Eagle, according to the group’s website and the FCC’s online license database.
Calvary Chapel already operates a low-power station from a small studio (and nearby 90-foot tower) near the county fairgrounds, cranking out up to 100 watts of religious programming, much of it downloaded from the Internet, at 97.7 FM. But a full-power station would allow greater power (from a tower in Montana City) and also provide protection against any other full-power stations that make claims on the airspace.
Full-power stations also carry more obligations than low-power stations, including having a dedicated employee and a station office accessible to the public.
Even if the signals were all sorted out, the applicants would have to find ways to raise money and build facilities, a process that could take a couple more years.
“It took us probably eight years to get the low-power,” said Cox.