January 2007

Out of tune with community needs?

By Douglas LaMunyon

People traveling along Highway 184, slipping past Summit Lake on their way from Dolores to Mancos, probably aren’t turning the radio dial in the car to check in for local traffic updates.

But when searching the airwaves, this Four Corners community is finding that some of the options on the radio dial provide a distinctive local flavor and are broadcast from their own backyard.

A quick tap on the “seek” button has the radio stopping often for stations broadcast out of Farmington, N.M., and Durango, but six of the listener’s choices do originate in Montezuma County. However, only one of those six is actually locally owned.

The expansion of radio to rural areas traces back to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that were intended to assist in the country’s recovery from the Great Depression.

Like a museum artifact, a fading 1955 FCC construction permit hangs in a frame above a door in the Cortez offices of American General Media (AGM), the current owner of three Cortez broadcast licenses: KVFC/740 AM, KRTZ/98.7 FM, and KISZ/97.9 FM. Winton Road Broadcasting, Co., LLC, based in Bakersfield, Calif., hold the licenses for these stations.

Winton Road Broadcasting is a part of AGM, which is also based in Bakersfield.

Radio owners sometimes have unique company names for different parts of the country.

“Radio stations tend to subdivide to wiggle around FCC broadcasting rules,” said Kelly Turner, newly promoted operations and station manager for the AGM stations in Cortez. Jack Hawkins’ name is on the 51- year-old permit that started KVFC as a locally owned radio station. But Turner thinks local ownership of radio stations is headed toward extinction.

“I think the days of mom-and-pop-owned stations are a distant memory,” Turner said.

Media consolidation

Although the political right is often criticized for its attack on Rooseveltbased programs and its fostering of media consolidation, the major blow to local ownership of rural media came during the Clinton years.

President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which loosened the strict limits the Federal Communications Commission then had in place on how many media outlets one company could own.

At that time, the largest radio company, Clear Channel Comm u n i c a t i o n s , owned 62 stations, with its closest competitor owning 53.

By March 2003, Clear Channel had emerged as a radio giant, taking control of 1,233 stations nationally. The impact of the 1996 legislation has been studied by the FCC in recent years. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell established a Localism Task Force and called for a study of the effects the policies had on the FCC’s goal of encouraging localism, a requirement for media outlets to serve the “needs and interests of the communities to which they are licensed.”

The results of the 2004 draft study showed a reality that was not in alignment with the FCC leadership’s unwritten vision for localism.

Under Powell’s direction, the FCC took positions that were favorable to media consolidation and even tried to further soften ownership rules in 2003.

The 2004 report was suppressed by FCC senior managers until Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) received a leaked copy from former FCC lawyer Adam Candeub in 2006. Boxer subsequently pressured current FCC Chairman Kevin Martin to make the report public.

A 2003 FCC Media Bureau study, “Review of the Radio Industry,” was also released under pressure from Boxer. The report showed that in areas like Cortez — rural stations that are not in a designated radio market — the changes to media ownership laws have had major impacts on local ownership.

While the number of stations available to listeners locally held relatively steady, during the seven-year period from 1996 to 2003 the number of different owners for radio stations not in a market decreased by 41 percent.

No stockholders

The relaxing of ownership rules has moved much of the control of rural radio stations outside of the local area. Of the six full-power stations currently licensed to cities in Montezuma County, only one is under local ownership.

KSJD/91.5 FM, a non-commercial educational radio station first licensed in 1988 under the direction of Tony Valdez, broadcasts from a modular building tucked into the piñon and juniper trees on the campus of the San Juan Basin Technical College east of Cortez. The station is managed by the Community Radio Project, a 501(c)(3) non-profit licensed to the college.

KSJD is now the only locally owned and operated, full-power radio station in the Montelores area. But its existence has been precarious at times, and its success has come as the result of an enormous effort by citizen volunteers.

Until 2003, KSJD operated as a training and educational facility for students at the technical college. But media consolidation reduced the demand for programmers (trained by the college and elsewhere) and at the same time the state legislature made cuts to education, forcing the college to close the radio station.

In April 2003, community leaders organized a meeting to try to save KSJD and turn it into a community radio station. More than 100 citizens attended, and an organization called the Community Radio Project was formed.

Subsequently, KSUT Public Radio in Ignacio and San Juan Basin Technical College signed an agreement under which management of KSJD was taken over by KSUT while the license was still owned by SJBTC. This agreement secured KSUT's signal in Montezuma County and allowed the college to keep its license.

Finally, on July 1, 2006, the Community Radio Project took over management of KSJD, assuring its independence from KSUT.

KSJD operates under a communityradio model that relies primarily on volunteers for operations. From April 2003 to June 2006, volunteers donated 15,000 hours to the station, according to Jeff Pope, its executive director.

The station has a strongly local flavor that is largely absent from most commercial stations.

“Community radio is locally owned, and the national trends are in the opposite direction because of a consolidation of media ownership,” said Pope, one of the station’s two paid employees.

Underwriting, listener-funded support and grants generate KSJD’s operating revenue. “Contrary to popular belief, public radio is not funded by the federal government,” Pope said.

A wide variety of live, local programming is supported on KSJD by more than 50 volunteers serving on committees and performing as disc jockeys. Pope says being locally controlled allows the station to be nimble when trying to fill the needs of the community.

“We don’t have to pay stockholders,” Pope said. “The dividends are what we provide to our listeners.”

‘Local as possible’

Commercial radio, of course, has a different bottom line. But although corporate ownership has been able to climb over the San Juan Mountains, many of the negative impacts that media-consolidation critics fear have not materialized in Montezuma County’s stations.

For instance, KRTZ does not have a corporately mandated play list of music for its adult-contemporary rock format, and the station is able to produce local news broadcasts from behind the sliding glass doors of its studio.

“We have a fair amount of autonomy,” Turner said.

Beyond American General Media’s corporate interests, KRTZ has two primary communities it is responsible for serving, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe and the Cortez community.

The KRTZ FM transmitter sits on Ute Mountain Ute land, and, as a result, the station has a contract which requires it to provide public programming that focuses on the tribe. Tribal member Norman Lopez hosts a Ute language program on Sunday mornings from 9 to 10.

Turner says 85 percent of the station’s local service to Cortez comes in the form of public service announcements for community organizations. The station also partners with the United Way and broadcasts Montezuma-Cortez High School sports. Turner received a 2005 “Voice of Democracy” award for working with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars associations.

“We try to keep it as local as possible,” said Turner, who was one of the last students to complete a since-discontinued broadcast communications program at San Juan College in Farmington, N.M. “Ultimately this is the community we are accountable to.”

A non-profit, Christian radio station licensed to Dolores, KTCF/89.5 FM, does not have a phone number or office in Dolores. The station works under the name of Power and Light Radio, and they are licensed to Educational Communications of Colorado Springs, Inc.

A relatively new addition to the area’s radio community is KKDC/93.3, a station owned by Durango-based Four Corners Broadcasting, LLC. Ray McDonnell, station manager, says his station is allowed some independence as well.

As long as the advertising sales are meeting their mark, McDonnell said, he is able to mold the programming on the 2-year-old station to reflect c o m m u n i t y needs. “The great thing is, FCB granted me a great wish.”

McDonnell, who was raised in Dolores, has enjoyed making the local schools and students a focus of much of his programming. KKDC, primarily a rock station, broadcasts Dolores football and basketball games, has conducted live remotes from pep rallies and partnered with the Montezuma County Health Department for a broadcast during the Great American Smokeout.

“I’m open to anything,” McDonnell said, “if it’s something the community will enjoy over the airwaves.”

P.A. Jackson, another graduate of Dolores High School, hosts “The Drive Home” on Thursday and Friday evenings for KKDC, which is commonly referred to as “D’Crow.” Jackson said he enjoys the localized nature of their station, and he said that it is quite a contrast from the Clear Channel-owned station where he did a job shadow during high school.

“There wasn’t anything personal about what they were doing,” he said.

In order to keep their licensing for use of the public airwaves, all stations have to annually prove they are responding to the needs of their community.

The 2004 FCC radio study, “Do Local Owners Deliver More Localism?” concluded that an increase in localism is indeed beneficial to the public.

The study focused on the production of locally oriented news stories.

According to the report, when a station is locally owned, the amount of local stories in a 30-minute news broadcast increases by an average of 5 1/2 minutes over what is offered by a non-locally-owned station. Local onlocation news broadcasts will increase by over 3 minutes, the study found.

In contrast, owners of multiple stations tend to consolidate newsrooms in cost-saving measures, leading to an increase in the broadcast of non-local information. But covering local news takes time, staff, and money, and not all stations are willing to commit the resources needed to do the job. Pope said he would like to offer regular local news on KSJD, but it is an important and expensive decision.

“The need for news-oriented programming in small communities is high,” Pope said. “But news is an expensive luxury when you operate on a lean, mean budget, and it is hard to choose that over keeping the lights on.”

KSJD has been able to produce an agricultural report and a twice-monthly talk news program and partnered with the League of Women Voters for a candidate forum before the 2006 elections. At KRTZ, five local news broadcasts are spaced throughout the day. Turner said his staff is spread thin and has to rely on the Internet, newspapers and press releases for much of the news they read. If given the opportunity to change KRTZ programming, Turner said he would add a full-time news director.

“News is what separates KRTZ from the soft-hits channel on satellite radio or the music on a person’s iPod,” he said. Studies have linked the availability of local news for rural radio audiences with an increased ability to attract government attention and aid.

According to David Stromberg in his study, “Radio’s Impact on Public Spending,” radio’s ability to inform voters led to a 50-percent increase in federal funds allocated to a rural county.

But Turner says finding advertising support for sporting events is much easier than it is for news slots. “I think the challenge is selling the importance of news to the advertiser.”

KKDC is able to do news, public service announcements and a community calendar at the beginning of each hour during the weekday morning show broadcast from its Dolores studio. The community service in these segments has a unique local twist.

Listeners have even called in to report lost dogs. “You couldn’t do that in a big town,” Jackson said.

Accurately measuring the effectiveness of localism seems to be a challenge for the FCC, but McDonnell, a Cortez resident, said he is always impressed with the number of people who tell him they are listening to KKDC.

McDonnell said he was struck by this during the recent birth of his and his wife’s second child.

“It was really cool,” he said. “When we were giving birth in the O.R., they were playing d’Crow.