Low-Power FM: A Springtime for Catholic Radio in Anchorage?

Attributions to Tim Drake  Register Senior Writer April 24-May 7, 2011 Issue | Posted 4/15/11 at 6:27 PM

WASHINGTON — The last time the Federal Communications Commission opened an application window for Low Power FM Radio stations, it resulted in nearly 20 new Catholic radio stations across the country.

People interested in getting on the air may have another chance this year.

Due to passage of the Local Community Radio Act in 2010 — through the combined efforts of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Prometheus Radio Project and the Catholic Radio Association — radio watchers expect that the FCC will open another application window later this year.

When that happens, nonprofit lay apostolates, individual parishes and Catholic schools interested in starting low-cost, local Catholic radio may just have the opportunity to do so.

“We’re anticipating that it could happen late this fall,” said Steve Gajdosik, president of the Catholic Radio Association. “Congress’ passage of the Local Community Radio Act will open up wide swaths of FM spectrum for low-power stations.”

“This is a golden opportunity for folks to bring Catholic radio to their community,” added John Pepe, affiliate relations manager for EWTN Radio.

Low Power FM Radio was created by the FCC in 2000. The stations, which are 100 watts or less, may only broadcast noncommercial, educational content. Typically, they are able to broadcast between 7-10 miles from the antenna. They’ve been used both in rural communities and urban areas. Out of a total of 185 Catholic radio stations in the U.S., approximately 30 of them are LPFM stations.

“With this window, there could be availability from coast to coast,” said Pepe. “It’s not just limited to the bottom 150 markets and lower. Houston, for example, could have the opportunity for seven or eight LPFM stations.”

Joe Peitz helps operate EWTN Radio affiliate KDME 98.3 FM in Fort Madison, Iowa, under the management of the Divine Mercy Educational Radio Association. The association rents space from an assisted-care facility for their office and broadcasting equipment.

Catholic radio has found a home in Iowa. The Diocese of Davenport has seven Catholic radio stations.

Peitz compares Catholic radio to the famous painting of Christ standing outside the door without a handle on the outside.

“We’re there to reach people who have fallen away or who have never understood Catholicism and introduce them to the truths of the Catholic Church,” said Peitz, whose full-time job is as a water treatment operator. He added that the content isn’t only for others. It has also benefited him personally.

“In my first month working with the station, I learned more about the Catholic faith than all of the CCD classes and sermons I had heard at church.”

‘Ready to Roll’

One significant advantage of LPFM is that it isn’t as cost-prohibitive as a full-blown FM station that typically costs millions of dollars to acquire.

“The initial start-up costs are typically around $20,000,” said Meg Babits, who operates Relevant Radio-affiliate KOFK 98.3 FM in Bozeman, Mont. “In addition to the equipment, we rent studio and antenna space from a secular radio station for $250 per month.”

“While the LPFMs are not full-power stations, they effectively cover any small to mid-sized cities, or even large sections of a metropolitan area,” said Pepe. “Low-power FMs will even be able to reach more population than some full-power stations.”

Babits said she has seen the effect of Catholic radio locally.

“Our diocesan newspaper, The Montana Catholic, interviewed a Bozeman parish RCIA class of nine people,” explained Babits. “Six of them said the radio station played a role in their conversion.”

Those results are also borne out by the Catholic Radio Association’s “2010 National Catholic Radio Study”: 47% of those surveyed said that they attend Mass more frequently because of Catholic radio; 98% said that it had helped them learn more about their Catholic faith; 94% said that it helped them to be more spiritually engaged or inspired; and 51% said that it has made them more involved in their local parish.

While the majority of LPFM stations are operated by nonprofit groups, some are operated by Catholic schools or parishes. In Dodge City, Kan., EWTN Radio affiliate KODC is operated by the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe and broadcast from one of the diocese’s schools.

“When we first started the LPFM, there weren’t many Catholic radio stations around,” said Father Ted Skalsky, pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe. “It’s really mushroomed since then.”

KODC is an example of how the availability of an LPFM can allow a diocese to do things that might not otherwise be possible. A local group in the community is working to create a larger radio station that would cover a wider geographic area. If that happens, Our Lady of Guadalupe would transform KODC into a Spanish-only station. Its programming is currently divided 50-50 between English and Spanish.

Gajdosik suggests that interested groups begin preparing for the application window now.

Both EWTN and the Catholic Radio Association are offering their assistance in helping interested groups get started.

The Catholic Radio Association is providing technical and legal services to help interested parties organize, apply and acquire permits, and EWTN is providing fundraising, promotional and programming support to the permit winners.

“In 2000, the CRA was newly formed and unable to help LPFM applicants,” stated Gajdosik.  “With the success we demonstrated in acquiring nearly 150 noncommercial FM radio permits in a 2007 full-power window, we are ready for LPFM this time.”

“The last time an application window opened, we didn’t have the valuable resources and experience we have now to help permit winners establish a local affiliate,” said Pepe. “This time, with a solid support system in place, we are all ready to roll.”

Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota

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