Friday, February 11, 2011

Low Power FM Stations Last Great Radio Hope

Buttoned-down radio professionals brief Austin Commissioners on the latest communications law passed by the lame duck Congress of the ill-fated liberal Super Majority, the 110th Congress

Austin - As hearing rooms go, it's way more wigged out and buttoned down than most.

The Legendary has seen many, many types – from School House Reformed to Mussolini Modern, rococo Italianate Renaissance in cool marble and deep, dark mahogany, Spanish Inquisition sun-splashed lunacy behind thick faux adobe Persian ziggurat walls towering madly in the blazing southwestern sunbelt deserts. Zowie.

On Wednesday evening, arctic winds blew pretty ladies down the canyons of the downtown streets, beautiful chicks who were swathed in black leather flagellation boots with spike heels, thick woolen ponchos, and yards-long mufflers wrapped as high as their eyes.

You got it.

Austin City Hall is one such, all angles, half-buried stones the size of a suburban couch interspersed with native prickly pear fauna that gives way to a lobby studded with avant garde art, lots of lightly-tinted plate glass and split block veneer walls with dressed limestone accents, state of the art video lighting emblazoned with the KW/2 logo, big screen tv's on the walls to bring the speakers up close and personal and the kind of exposed ceiling any sound stage anywhere would employ, complete with conduit, black pipes, sleek black cybernetic furniture below to match, air conditioning ducts and the bare bodkin concrete of the deck above.

Kind of reminds you that in the high rise world of downtown anywhere, one man's ceiling is another man's floor. Paper moon. Tinsel sun. Sex appeal. Hollywood.


Image-conscious, imaginistic, cinematic, videonic and high tech to the bone. Get your Ray-Bans on. It's show time.

Let the meeting come to order. Bang bang.

The Austin Community technology and Telecommunications Commission is in session.

Only in Ostentatious, that village beside the river where the scores of whip-thin ladies and gentlemen turkey trot greyhound sinew of twitch muscularity in any weather and the salsa chip muzak spins mighty arpeggios to the heavens, would you find such a tribunal of tech.


That Big D Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchison, shepherded the Local Community Radio Act of 2009 past the final fetters of Senator John Cornyn's millionaire's club of 100 and that old tried and true cloakroom special, the “secret hold,” imposed by Big Broadcasting and those friendly folks from Cherry Hill and elsewhere, who pointed out to Philo Farnsworth that he really didn't invent the picture tube and electron gun, after all. It was those bright young men in Mr. Thomas Edison's labs at Menlo Park.

Proved it. In Court. Yeah. Court? Yeah, Court. Proved it.

What's the Community Radio Act of 2009?

It's going to be good.

Good for small town America, according to Senator Hutchison, and good for all those communities passed by and passed over by the clear channels of corporate greed engineered by the Gipper and Company. Just another inning in the old ball game, that was, play by play by the Gipper, radio and tv personality Ronald Reagan.

One more indication that the air you breathe doesn't really belong to you, but to the multinational corporations who best know what to do with it, according to their tax lawyers and lobbyists.


Non-profit organizations that don't own another broadcasting license, a newspaper, or turn a profit will be able to acquire a broadcasting permit for no more than 100 watts that will send an FM signal into the air in a radius of about 5 miles.

All the fundamental rules will apply. The seven dirty words, the 24-hour broadcasting requirement, non-commercial. The works. All a no-no.

Hey, it's news. The last opportunity for anything like it passed us by in 2007, saith an expert who testified.

Pirates need not apply. Oh, they're out there. In fact, a highly politicized pirate operation is broadcasting great gushing guns at 90.1 with a big, fat signal.

Tough love will apply. If you've ever done so, you won't get a low power FM broadcasting license. That's part of the deal.

“The FCC says they have bigger fish to fry.”

Says who?

Jim Ellinger of Austin Airways, a consultant who helps people get construction permits for radio stations after they have passed the hurdles of the dreaded engineering study, the protest period, and complied with all the rules the industry can buy through the bureaucrats who stalk the corridors of the FCC.

In fact, he laid it down in glowing terms.

“The Federal Communications Commission moves at glacial speed,” Mr. Ellinger said, his expression cool, professional and deadpan.

He speaks with the voice of experience. Summing up his bona fides – executive director of Austin's television educational and public access studio, Channel Austin, a long-term consultant and broadcast executive, and the negotiator of the famous “Wolfman Jack” treaty with Old Mexico to get the Wolf's old put-your-right-hand-on-the-radio frequency transferred to American control, he summed up by saying - again, very deadpan - “I'm clearly a long-time radio nut.”

It's an understatement. This is the guy who made history by setting up a low power FM station inside the Houston Astrodome to keep the refugees of the Hurricane Katrine debacle who were lodged there in abject homeless misery informed and entertained during that phase of their ordeal.

Yeah, he got a temporary broadcasting permit specifically devoted to the purpose.

Clearly. A. Long. Time. Radio. Nut.

If all goes according to schedule, he told the commissioners of this 37th most electronic media-intensive city in the nation, applicants will be able to submit their papers in about two years. First, the all-important rule-writing process, the interpretation of what the Congress really meant, the one that goes in that Code of Federal Regulations.

Nine out ten of an estimated 100 permits that will be granted in Texas will be to religious organizations, he emphasizes.

It won't be the big cities that get the licenses.

“I can see a Buda or a Pflugerville getting an LPFM license,” he said, “the communities that have been overlooked.”

“The people who oppose this law are very wealthy, very powerful, and very big corporations.”

Oddly enough, the National Public Radio Network seems to spearhead the opposition.

They speak in terms of interference. Competition is never mentioned. Ever. Never. Mentioned. Interference is the word.

In fact, NPR funded a study of the broadcast spectrum that would hopefully enforce the doctrine of the “third adjacency,” which dictates that a broadcaster may not have a frequency within the first and second notch available next door to an existing licensee.

Problem. They couldn't find any such thing as interference caused by low power FM stations that provide local content to communities who have been passed by.

What does cause interference?

“We've got to clean up the repeaters first.”

Low power repeaters placed strategically just over a hill to assist FM line of sight transmitters reach areas a station otherwise couldn't touch. They are found anywhere between 88 and 92 on the spectrum and are fed by large stations that have “zero local content,” according to Mr. Ellinger.

In fact, the study turned up just the opposite, according to Phil Goetz, a radio and television broadcasting expert with a Master's Degree from University of Texas and a career selling people all the gear it takes to get the job done – anything from broadcast news to making movies. He's in sales at Texas Media Systems. His wife is the former Gracie Villarreal, whom local readers may remember as a KWTX Waco Channel 10 reporter who locked horns with DA John Segrest at the McLennan County Courthouse, and went down to defeat.

She's working on her Master's degree at St. Edwards, getting ready to move up and out and onward in her career.

Mr. Goetz conducted a survey of 720 stations from the standpoint of a) how stations serve the local community and b) how they handle feedback from the audiences they serve.

You can find surprising results in his study, which is parked at a threaded discussion forum URL he hosts at

In the highly competitive world of broadcasting, “Anybody can record an album,” he reminds The Legendary. “It's selling it that presents the challenge.”

He flashed an invoice the man in the cubicle next to his on a deal inked with the Glenn Beck organization, headquartered in New York.

“That deal was worked over the phones.”

So was the low power deal. It seems that Mr. Goetz and friends flooded Senatorial offices, especially that of John Cornyn, with complaints about Big Broadcasting working its “secret hold” magic during the lame duck session of the 110th Congress. They used that thousand-pound phone receiver to lift the embargo and the rest is history.

And there's a lot of it. Copnsider what Jim Ellinger calls the real story of low power FM access to the airwaves, how it took place in the halls of Congress, where the Prometheus Radio Project, which is, essentially, “a hairy, sleeveless anarchist from Philadelphia in a pink tutu – literally.”

He waited for the appreciative laughter to die down.

Anyway, it's true. Apparently, the wild man stalked the marble corridors for years, pushing for guerilla radio to be brought to small town America.

Only in America, you might say. Philadelphia. Ostentatious. Pflugerville. Land of Opportunity. All hail!

Mr. Ellinger sighed, said it's true that radio is red hot, but it's a dying industry, told commissioners how soon you will be able to buy a car with WiFi and a radio that will bring you any small town station from Radio Nigeria to Iceland's latest punk rock at the touch of a button.

"It will be one of the worst examples of bloody, cut throat licensing applicant infighting in history...It's nasty - real nasty."
Meeting adjourned.

So good to be alive and well and hooked up in one of the last truly free cities of the American heartland.

All hail Ostentatious of the People's Republic of Travis County. After all, it's the spiritual home of LBJ, that rail-thin hustler from the Hill Country who took one look at television some time in the darkest days of the depression, said, "You can sell anything that thing," and proceeded to prove it.

All hail. Yes. All hail.


  1. This is one of those tomes where the style obfuscates the content. It is 80% hyperbole, 10%
    inaccuracies and 10% factual reporting. I learned that the writer thinks Austin is a rarefied place full of style-conscious techno-mavens... and he thinks that it is all-so thin-skinned. I guess he doesn't live in Austin. Probably from a failed industrial mid-west city. From there the future looks quite odd I imagine. Radio. Hate to say it, but it's over. It's a who-cares. Sad-but-true.

  2. Show me where the inaccuracies are; I'll take care of it. I know I got the name of the consultant's organization wrong. I thought he said Austin Airways. He said Austin Airwaves. You know, most people hand a guy their card to prevent that kind of thing, but, oh, well. I guess that's the first mistake I ever made in my life.

    The Legendary

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