Part 3 

Radio-Free Richmond

"There's a handful of stations out there that claim to be alternative, but it's all the same stuff. They all play what Top 40 radio plays. It's either what's on MTV, or Skynyrd, Eagles and Boston, over and over again."
— Hunter Boxley, local retailer

"I'd love for there to be more diversity in programming," WCVE's Clark says. "There's room for it in this town. Unfortunately, money seems to be the deciding factor." But for new competitors who wish to enter the market, Big Money, as it turns out, is only one obstacle.

Perhaps a more serious barrier to competition on the local airwaves are regulations imposed by the Federal Communications Commission itself. Currently at issue are "interference standards," imposed by the FCC to limit one station's ability to tread on the frequency of another. Not only do the standards limit the occupancy of each frequency, they also limit the occupancy of so-called "adjacencies" to those frequencies. If a station is located at 95.5, for instance, its adjacencies are 95.3. and 95.7 and so on, which makes them unavailable for use. Furthermore, this hypothetical 95.5 doesn't even have to be local to affect potential broadcast decisions — it could be 100 miles away, in D.C. or Norfolk. It's the reason for what Maxwell calls "the great gaping gaps of static" one hears between stations on the dial.

Michael Wagner, a supervisory attorney in the FCC's Mass Media Bureau in Washington, D.C., has another name for it: "It's what we call a 'mature service.'"

According to Wagner, in markets such as Richmond very few frequencies, if any, haven't already been claimed. "If you wanted an available AM frequency in Atlanta, let's say, you're not going to find it."

In the rare case that an available frequency is discovered, the license to operate it, by law, must go up for auction. The auctioning of licenses has long been an FCC tradition, but before 1993 there was still hope for independent operators wanting to break into the market. Prior to that year the FCC maintained a system of "comparative bidding," which meant that proposals were judged on a merit/demerit system that in large part evaluated prospective owners on how well they would serve the surrounding community. Qualities such as broadcast experience were looked upon favorably; absentee ownership was not. In 1993, however, the practice of comparative bidding was ruled unconstitutional. Since then, licenses have been awarded strictly to the highest bidder.

But this was hardly the knockout punch. Until 1996, the FCC still maintained that companies could only own one station per bandwidth in any given market — a move that greatly bolstered competition, especially in mature markets. The passage of the Telecommunications Act simply opened the floodgates.

While people like Wagner and Clark insist that the airwaves remain public property, there's little chance under current regulations that the public will ever have any real access to it. With no available frequencies and multibillion dollar trades of the companies that own local stations, radio operation is in the hands of a very wealthy few.

Nevertheless, millions of regular folks all over the country find radio operation a magnetizing, almost magical thing — and if the number of applicants for low power licenses to the FCC is any indication, also a very practical one. Last year the FCC received 13,000 applications from schools, churches, private individuals and organizations seeking permits to use the airwaves on a small scale, using low-power radio transmitters. ('Low power' means up to 100 watts, which is enough to cover approximately 15 city blocks, as opposed a 50,000-watt station such as WKLR 96.5 "The Planet" which serves the metro Richmond area, but can be heard as far away as Williamsburg).

Though low-power proponents hardly see their small presence as a threat to anyone, permits have been slow in coming. Low-power advocates argue that only the most unsophisticated radios can't discern between frequencies and their adjacencies, and note that even stations grandfathered in before the interference regulations don't seem to interfere with one another. To low-power micro operators, the "great gaping gaps of static" are vast frontiers of opportunity. The FCC — and big business — continue to consider interference a major sticking point. "If we gave a license to everyone who wanted one, there'd be stations walking all over each other," says Wagner.

Within the FCC, a new director and mounting pressure from various congressional constituencies hint at possible changes. In August, the FCC is scheduled to hold a preliminary hearing on interference issues. Until then, operation of unlicensed transmitters on unlicensed frequencies remains a federal offense (hence the label "pirate radio"), and the FCC continues to squash pirate stations. More than 200 have been shut down in the last two years. Proponents claim the right to free speech, but so far none of those claims has held up in court.

Local micro radio proponent Christopher Maxwell would like to do things on the up and up.

A self-professed unemployed computer geek, Maxwell is trying to raise awareness for his Radio Free Richmond Project, and a station, at least in theory, to be called WRFR. Maxwell says his push to create WRFR began after repeated programming complaints to the board members of WCVE went ignored.

"WCVE is a station for blue hairs," he says, citing the predominant classical music programming the station airs each week. After repeated rejections, Maxwell's dissatisfaction led to calls for a second NPR station, as is the case in many other cities. Such a proposal would have been wishful thinking had he not recognized the availability of the frequency [89.7 FM].

Upon making the suggestion to public radio staff, however, Maxwell claims he was reprimanded by Clark who allegedly leaned nose-to-nose with Maxwell across a conference table and hollered, "If you're so damn smart, go start your own station."

Though he admits a meeting took place, Clark has no recollection of Maxwell's proposal. He remembers their meeting another way: "[Maxwell] said he'd give $200 towards instituting a program we weren't sure would be successful," Clark recalls (Maxwell says he wanted "Talk of the Nation" to air). "Some people try to create controversy where there is none. Personally I think the guy's sick. He's certainly living in his own world. He's a cult of one."

Since Maxwell's soured dealings with WCVE, the socially conservative American Family Association has applied for a license to operate on 89.7 FM — an act that incenses Maxwell. "Do you really think it's a coincidence that the [AFA] is applying for it just six months after I suggested it to WCVE?" he says.

In the meantime Maxwell spends his time plastering car windshields and downtown utility poles with text-heavy leaflets that ring of propaganda and government conspiracy on the order of an "X-Files" episode.

To Maxwell's best estimation, a low-power station could cost $200,000, but without a frequency or a license to operate the point is all but moot. With the current red tape and corporate lobbying, Maxwell fears that day may never come.

Despite the rhetoric of micro radio reactionaries, there are several local organizations already in position, and capable of providing alternative voices. The most obvious of these are university radio stations, who are without loyalties to shareholders or corporations. A variety of issues, however, keep these stations off the public's preset dial.

The first of these is [WVCU], the voice of Richmond's most prominent — and rapidly expanding — university. It's a voice, however that goes almost totally unheard. Currently, VCU radio is audible only in the dorms, and only then through cable television receivers, an arrangement that for years has ensured its place safely out of range of the public's ears. This appeared to be changing when rumors surfaced several months ago about the possibility of a low-power transmitter being placed atop Rhodes Hall, thus expanding the station's FM presence in the city. The expansion never happened.

Much stronger university signals originate in the suburbs, where stations like University of Richmond's 90.1 WDCE, (to the west) and Virginia State University's 91.3 WVST (to the south) maintain operations. Still, these stations' relatively low-power transmitters — around 100 watts each — keep their broadcasts out of earshot of the general population.

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