Saga Seeks FCC Squash Of A LPFM ‘Cluster’

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With all of 21 watts of power at 748 feet, an LPFM serving a college town some 75 miles to the northwest of Richmond and a two-hour car ride from Washington, D.C., is using the legal identifier of a long-gone radio station that once served as Howard Stern’s FM home in New York to bring “Rock Hits” to the market.


Thanks to terrain, this baby radio station offering familiar songs from such artists as 3 Doors Down and Portugal. The Man reaches all of the 209th-largest market in the U.S., as do three other LPFMs; a fifth LPFM covers tiny Ruckersville, Va., 22 minutes up Seminole Trail.

The quintet of LPFMs, in many ways, sound like commercially licensed stations. For Saga Communications, the operator of four FMs and two AMs, each with FM translators, in this market — Charlottesville, Va. — they are acting too much like commercially licensed stations, too.

In fact, Saga says the LPFMs “are operating illegally,” and has asked the FCC to nix the LPFMs’ license renewals.

UNDERWRITING MISUNDERSTOOD?

The FCC has a strict policy on the noncommercial nature of educational broadcasting, even as more brand names and company mentions creep into programming on both PBS and NPR through increased underwriting support.

The Commission’s concerns regarding advertising on noncommercial broadcast stations dates to 1986, when the agency became aware “of significant uncertainty and controversy” concerning what is allowed and what isn’t.

Section 399B of the Communication’s Act of 1934, as amended, and Sections 73.503(d) and 73.621(e) of the Rules forbid, by law, the broadcast of announcements by public broadcast stations which promote the sale of goods and services of for-profit entities in return for consideration paid to the station.

That’s different than on-air acknowledgments, which the FCC in March 1984 gave public broadcasters the ability to expand or “enhance” the scope of. This allowed the donor/underwriter to include logos or slogans that identify their brand or business but do not promote where they are located, the value of a specific product or service, and brand and trade names and product or service listings.

“That action was taken as another step in our ongoing effort to strike a reasonable balance between the financial needs of public broadcast stations and their obligation to provide an essentially noncommercial service,” the Commission notes. “It was our view that ‘enhanced underwriting’ would offer significant potential benefits to public broadcasting in terms of attracting additional business support and would thereby improve the financial self-sufficiency of the service without threatening its underlying noncommercial nature.  In this regard, we emphasized that such announcements could not include qualitative or comparative language.”

Then-FCC Commissioner Mark Fowler even offered examples of announcements “that would clearly violate the rule.”

  • “7.7% interest rate available now.”
  • “Stop by our showroom to see a model”
  • “A bonus available this week”
  • “Special gift for the first 50 visitors”

In April 2017, some five years after a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking first came to light, the FCC adopted new rules allowing many noncommercial radio and TV stations to air limited fundraisers for other non-profit organizations.

That was the lone change to long-standing rules for noncommercial stations seen in recent years.

Based on what RBR+TVBR heard on Sept. 11 on just one of the five LPFMs, the operator may be culpable of multiple violations of the Commission’s noncommercial underwriting rules.

SPOTS AND SPONSORSHIPS

During the 10am hour, RBR+TVBR tuned to WXRK-LPFM 92.3 via its web stream.

Two short breaks from music sweeps were heard. The first featured an announcement for Jim Price Hyundai that could have been more of a community service message than spot. However, the following message could easily be interpreted as a commercial for a local Outback Steakhouse restaurant, followed by another questionable message for Central Battery.

At 10:55am, a live host noted that “Rock Hits” was supported by another local auto dealership. Again, this is permissible if offers or an address are not aired.

But, at the top of the hour came something very reminiscent of a commercial broadcaster: WXRK-LPFM announced that it was broadcasting from the “Pepsi of Central Virginia Studios” in Charlottesville.

Interestingly, Monticello Media, the George Reed-owned operator of five stations in Charlottesville, operates from a facility widely known as the “Pepsi building,” as it is owned by the local bottler.

Similar actions at the five LPFMs ultmately led Saga on September 3 to file a petition to deny the license renewals of WXRK-LPFM, licensed to Blue Ridge Free Media, and four other LPFMs — all with different licensee names:

  • WVAI-LPFM “101.3 JAMZ,” licensed to Air Mix Virginia and airing an Urban format.
  • Talk WPVC-LPFM 94.7 “The Progressive Voice,” licensed to Promise Land Communications. The station also airs Spanish-language programming for two hours on weekday afternoons and on weekend afternoons.
  • WREN-LPFM 97.9 “Real Oldies,” licensed to Genesis Communications
  • WKMZ-LPFM 96.5 in Ruckersville, Va., licensed to Gateway Media. It is a simulcast partner of WREN-LPFM.

The simulcast of WREN and WKMZ are among the questionable actions brought to the FCC’s attention in a 78-page Consolidated Petition to Deny from Saga subsidiary Tidewater Communications LLC, filed on the company’s behalf by Gary Smithwick of Washington, D.C. law firm Smithwick & Belendiuk.

It is Saga’s belief that the LPFMs “are parties to a prohibited operating agreement or management agreement,” and are “regularly” broadcasting commercial announcements.

Further, the LPFMs’ applications “are rife with false certifications.”

Saga also asserts that “the LPFM Stations have not served the public interest, convenience, and necessity,” although some local listeners may disagree, given the unique programming offered across the low-powered stations.

That said, “Rock Hits” could easily be viewed as an option for those who would otherwise tune to Saga’s Adult Alternative WCNR-FM 106.1 “The Corner” or even its “Iconic Rock” WWWV-FM 97.5, which focuses on Classic Rock. For WPVC, with such syndicated hosts as Thom Hartmann, Stephanie Miller and Randi Rhodes alongside progressive noncomm offering Democracy Now!, Saga may be disgruntled as it owns News/Talk WINA-AM 1070, which uses an FM translator at 98.9 MHz. WINA offers conservative talk programs from hosts including Hugh Hewitt, Mark Levin and Dennis Prager. 

This likely explains why Saga “will suffer injury if the Commission grants the applications and the parties continue to illegally operate the LPFM stations,” including advertiser and listening losses.

SHADY SIMULCAST, ‘COOP’ CLUSTER 

The shared programming on WREN and WKMZ is of particular concern. As Saga notes in the petition, the LPFM Applicants are all parties to an operating or management agreement which is prohibited by Section 73 .860( e) of the Commission’s Rules.

Indeed, the language in this section reads, “No LPFM licensee may enter into an operating agreement of any type, including a time brokerage or management agreement, with either a full-power broadcast station or another LPFM station.”

Yet, “It is unquestioned that all of the LPFM Stations are marketed together by an entity known as Experience Media,” Saga continues. A website noting that Experience Media Sales “handles sales and marketing for the Virginia Radio Coop radio stations,” described as “an unusual group of six independently owned and operated, non-commercial radio stations” is no longer accessible.

However, a cached version accessible via a Google search provided some intriguing language. First, Experience Media promised that a “buy” may be placed with any or all of the Radio Coop stations through Experience Media Sales. “Experience Media Sales may be able to help you with other Central Virginia marketing and advertising that you may have,” it promised.

This includes WBDB-LPFM 103.3 in Richmond, branded as “Bridge 103.3.”

In the Petition, Saga included a rate card, which appears as follows:

The sales promotional literature proclaims, “Our stations are broadcast from the 250-foot
monopole beside the Fashion Square Mall.”

The tower, pictured, is located at facilities used by CenturyLink in Charlottesville.

Where are each of the LPFMs located? FCC documents show WXRK-LPFM’s address as “100-B Westerly Avenue,” and a Ruckersville address for WREN of “253 Spring Oaks Lane,” while the address for WPVC is “1195 River Chase Road” in Charlottesville. WVAI’s record shows an address of “255 Zan Road” in Charlottesville.

That’s the home of Seminole Square Shopping Center, where, according to materials provided to the FCC by Saga from the WREN website, all of the LPFMs operate from “to divide office and transmitter site rent, office and some other technical expenses.”

The WXRK, WPVC and WREN addresses appear to be for residences; the Zan Road address displays a “Rock Hits” sign prominently in its office window.

A website for Virginia Radio Coop is still in operation.

It says in its “About” section that it is a non-profit trade group “which provides common support functions for a group of seven FM stations operating in Charlottesville and the Central Virginia region,” including studio, office, and transmitter site rental; some equipment purchases; and “many office support services for all of the stations.”

It also notes that each station is operated “by a unique board of directors who makes all program and management decisions related to the individual radio station which they own and manage.”

Importantly, the coop notes, “These stations are all non-commercial however businesses and organizations may purchase underwriting announcements through Charlottesville ad agency Experience Media or from the individual stations.”

Saga’s reaction to this? “In order to form the Virginia Radio Coop, there must be an agreement, whether written or oral, among the LPFM Stations. Such management agreement or operating agreement is prohibited by Section 73 .860( e) of the Commission’s rules.”

THE MASTERMIND BEHIND THE COOP

The now-defunct website for Experience Media Sales notes that the operation is owned and operated by Mike McBlair.

He’s the morning personality on WREN and is also a 74-year-old Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War.

In Saga’s eyes, he’s also an individual behind “an elaborate sham designed to give the appearance of compliance with the Commission’s rules and policies, while operating a commercial enterprise.”

This includes crafting underwriting announcements that may clearly go far beyond what the FCC allows, as can heard in these two examples:

 

The Charlottesville radio market was last surveyed by Nielsen Audio in Spring 2018, and was subsequently dropped; Saga was not a subscriber, while Monticello Media, the George Reed-owned operator, opted not to sign a new contract with Nielsen. This left iHeartMedia as the lone operator subscribing to local ratings. However, its only stations appearing the market’s ratings were WKCY-FM in Harrisonburg and WJJS-FM in Roanoke.

As a result, listener estimates for the five LPFMs are not publicly known.

While McBlair is the person behind Experience Media Sales, FCC documentation confirms that each of the LPFMs are controlled by a host of different individuals.

Still, there are clearly blurred lines between the stations. Jeff Lenert is the President and Director of WPVC-LPFM. He also handles the midday shift at WXRK-LPFM.

Asked for comment, Lenert declined, explaining that based on Saga’s action “we have had to retain counsel, and it would be foolish of us to comment outside of the advise of our counsel.”

He added that the window for WPVC, WXRK and the other LPFMs to respond is “so short.”

Lenert did comment, however, on how he has been proactive to many of the GMs in the Charlottesville market, as he wants it to be a thriving radio community. “I hope every radio station in Charlottesville is successful because a rising tide floats all ships,” he said.

Meanwhile, an individual associated with the LPFMs who requested anonymity noted that McBlair had left WREN for the day and was likely napping during the midday hour on Wednesday. The individual questioned how the LPFMs got on Saga’s radar, while also pointing fingers at the publicly traded company for how it presents itself to local businesses and listeners.

“Saga operates locally under the ‘Charlottesville Radio Group’ name,” the person tied to the LPFMs said. “They are as local as Best Buy.”

Nevertheless, Saga and Monticello Media operate within FCC guidelines, and Reed told RBR+TVBR that he supports Saga’s actions.

Whether or not the LPFMs are will ultimately be left to the Commission to decide.