FCC Regulatory Window Could Triple Number of Catholic Radio Stations

INDIAN RIVER, Mich. — Franciscan Father Harry Speckman understands the difficulty in starting a Catholic radio station. With most of the commercial bandwidth already claimed, start-ups have to bid on existing stations. That's an expensive proposition.

“We're currently bidding on a station,” said Father Speckman, senior associate at Cross in the Woods Catholic Church and Shrine in Indian River, Mich. “The cost is one of the impediments to our acquiring something like this.”

But there may soon be a far less expensive way of increasing the number of Catholic radio stations. According to radio insiders, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to make available the non-commercial educational (NCE) band of FM sometime in late 2005 or 2006.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Steve Gajdosik, president of the Charleston, S.C.-based Catholic Radio Association. “If you look at the phenomenal lead that Christian radio has on Catholic radio — 1,700 stations vs. 107 — in large part, those licenses were obtained from the FCC when they were free. Catholics slept through all those application windows. If Catholics want a full-service AM or FM station, they have to buy it, with the exception of the NCE window.”

The license itself is free. In many cases, rather than having to put up a broadcast tower, someone with this kind of license can find a transmitter on existing towers, eliminating the costs for a “historical study” and construction.

Unlike low-power FM (LPFM) stations, which reach only a 5- to 10-mile radius, non-commercial educational stations can reach between 10 and 75 miles, depending on terrain and interfering stations.

In describing the importance of radio, Gajdosik quoted Pope John Paul II's 1990 encyclical letter Redemptoris Missio (On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate). “The Holy Father wrote that, ‘The means of social communication have become so important as to be for many the chief means of information and education, of guidance and inspiration in their behavior as individuals, families and within society at large,’” said Gajdosik.

Gajdosik also stressed the urgency for those interested in starting Catholic radio. “If you want to do Catholic radio three years from now, you have to start now,” he said.

Typically, the Federal Communications Commission gives stations 30 days notice prior to the application window's opening. Once open, stations have only five days to apply. Before applying, interested parties must have an engineering study and sometimes a historical study, done to determine whether a station is possible in a given area.

Tripling Possible

Gajdosik expects that Protestants will submit thousands of applications in the competitive application process. But his association hopes that Catholics will triple the number of Catholic stations on the air.

The FCC uses a point system in approving applications. Among the criteria used are the number of listeners served, local ownership where the listening range does not overlap the contours of existing stations, geographic area covered, and those who, at the time of filing, have the fewest existing station authorizations.

In an effort to increase the number of Catholic stations on the air, the Catholic Radio Association is assisting those interested in applying for the non-commercial educational license. The association is currently working with about 50 persons and groups, including parishes, organizations and dioceses, by helping to conduct engineering studies.

Gajdosik has a track record of success in such efforts. While president of Starboard Broadcasting, he spearheaded an initiative resulting in more than 100 new Catholic low-power FM stations. In 2003, the association helped stations apply for 200 FM translators, and in 2004 it helped stations apply for 60 new AM licenses. A translator is an FM radio station that receives a signal from one channel and transmits it on another.

Attorney Dan Meara is ready to file an application as soon as the window opens. In June of 2004, Meara was talking with fellow Knights of Columbus about renting time on a local radio station to broadcast “Catholic Answers Live.”

“No one was really interested in spending the money,” said Meara. “One of them asked, ‘Why don't we start our own radio station?’”

So Meara drew up a plan for a local station at the cost of about $16,000. His Knights council was supportive.

Meara enlisted the help of the Catholic Radio Association to conduct an engineering study. The results of that study showed that the council could apply for a non-commercial educational FM license — at no cost — for a considerably larger station that would reach four dioceses — Wichita and Kansas City in Kansas, and Kansas City-St. Joseph and Cape Girardeau in Missouri.

“This would be an opportunity not only to promote a Catholic culture, but to give people an opportunity to find out what Catholics really believe,” said Meara.

Father Speckman agreed. The organization he is assisting — Baraga Broadcasting — hopes to apply for three licenses in the cities of Alpena, Houghton Lake, and Tawas, Mich., that would serve the 21 counties in the northernmost portion of Michigan's lower peninsula.

“I'm convinced of the power and ability of radio to reach people,” said Father Speckman, who turned a former student radio station at Quincy University in Illinois into a public radio station. “With the diminishing number of clergy, our ability to get the Catholic message out is vital. We have to reach out and maintain contact. This seems a good way to do that.”

Baraga Broadcasting is already providing limited Catholic radio in Michigan. A commercial station has offered sub-carrier radio (a special bandwidth through which reading services for the visually impaired is offered) so listeners can receive Catholic radio, but it requires a special radio to receive the broadcast.

The Michigan station taps into Ave Maria Radio's live feed to do that, and would do the same with any new station. The Kansas station plans to tap into EWTN/WEWN's live feed.

“People don't understand how easy or how effective radio is,” said Gajdosik. “For most people and bishops, it's not on their radar screen. This will effectively be the last opportunity to acquire any non-commercial FM license.”

Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.


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