The Columbia Journalism Review has just published “Out of Thin Air,” which is without a doubt the most comprehensive treatment done by a mainstream media outlet to date on the on the speculation and trafficking of FM translator stations. The 3,600-word piece does an admirable job of unpacking some of the technically-challenging aspects of this complicated story.

However, it is not without its share of mistakes, some of which are big enough to somewhat obscure the real nature of the story at hand.

I. Useful Details

Interesting new information about the speculation/trafficking scheme is unearthed. The mastermind behind Radio Assist Ministry (RAM), Edgewater Broadcasting (EB), and World Radio Link (WRL), Clark Parrish, applied for more than 4,000 translator construction permits using “software designed to find open frequencies on which to place translators, which he’d been developing for months.”

The software was the fruit of more than 10 years of experience with planning and building translator networks for other religious broadcasters. It is noted that the number of translator applications RAM/EB filed were actually “less than half the number the companies had been prepared to file for.”

The author of the piece, Daniel Schulman, calculates that RAM/EB has made more than $900,000 by selling FM translator construction permits – granted for free by the FCC – and that the rest of the permits RAM/EB holds are worth $8.7 million, an estimate significantly higher than my own.

Parrish’s master business plan calls for the sale of translator station construction permits to finance the acquisition or construction of a fleet of full-power FM stations, all of which will be fed by satellite from Twin Falls, Idaho. Acquiring these full-power stations is apparently accomplished under the auspices of World Radio Link, the third heretofore mostly-unexamined company in Parrish’s RAM/EB/WRL triad.

These stations, in turn, will feed their own networks of translators, thereby increasing each station’s coverage to state-wide or regional scope. Patching these networks together could make for a nationwide reach.

This makes sense, especially since the translators granted by the FCC from the 2003 invasion-filing cannot be fed via satellite – they all require full-power stations to feed them. (Parrish’s old employer has a petition for rulemaking pending at the FCC to change this, which was filed at or just after his departure in 2002.) Thus Parrish cannot create his own national network of translators without first acquiring “parent” feeder-stations.

Schulman also spoke with an anonymous “FCC official” who pretty much admitted that the hoarded spectrum is unrecoverable, and the manner by which RAM/EB are making money off of their translator station construction permits is at the very least a perversion of the FM translator rules:

The FCC official acknowledged that the agency must “refine” its regulations, placing limits on translator ownership and restrictions on sales. “You have situations where individuals have received them, then they’ve gone to the secondary market just to sell them off,” he said. “And that thwarts the entire purpose.” At some point, the FCC will sort through those questions, but the time frame for that is up to the commission’s new chairman, Kevin Martin, the official said.

Schulman writes that helping “other Christian organizations reach out through radio” was something “Parrish had always seen as central to their mission,” which strongly suggests that he applied for many translator station construction permits with the express intent of selling them. That is in effect the key to making the World Radio Link business model work. Radio Assist Ministry’s web site is very up-front about this particular motive.

In a nutshell, the open-air translator marketplace fed by RAM/EB and many other religious broadcasters might or should be made illegal at some point in the future, given that the FCC is aware that a problem exists. Since the heist is taking place in the present, though, there’s not a lot to be done. Martin is an avowed Christian and very close to the religious broadcast industry as a whole, which further diminishes the prospects of agency intervention.

II. Technicality

“Out of Thin Air” misframes an important technical point. Supporters of low-power FM stations – live and local community radio – are reported to allege that RAM/EB’s spectrum windfall is to the detriment of LPFM stations. Because translator-speculators have applied for so many channels, the use of those channels is now precluded by LPFM stations. Peter Doyle, Chief of the Audio Division of the FCC’s Media Bureau, responds: “You can often put translators in places where you cannot put low-power stations. So [it] is fundamentally, and frankly, outrageously wrong [to claim] that every translator bumps out a potential low-power station.”

What is really outrageous is that the FCC’s rules allow translators more opportunities to flourish than LPFM stations. Translator and LPFM stations are technologically identical – both are FM broadcast stations. Translator stations can broadcast with up to 250 watts of power, while LPFM stations are limited to just 100 watts. Yet translator stations can be sited closer on the dial to other local stations than LPFM stations can, even though a translator may run more than twice the power of an LPFM station and thus creates a larger potential for interference to other stations. The final distinctive kicker is that LPFM stations are encouraged by the FCC to be live and local, while translators are expressly forbidden from originating local programming.

Therefore, the FCC’s rules favor the spread of translators over LPFM stations. By extension, they favor the spread of syndicated program services like those Parrish plans to offer over localism. There is no credible technical reason why LPFM stations could not be sited using the rules that apply to translators. The reason why extra restrictions exist for LPFM is purely political. Congressional intervention at the behest of the NAB and NPR created the regulatory divide between translator and LPFM, excessively restricting the placement of the latter.

So when Peter Doyle says it’s outrageous to claim that translators do not displace LPFM stations, that claim only stands if you ignore the unjust nature of the FCC’s allocational regulations. Schulman uses Doyle’s rebuttal and a “color-coded map…depicting free spectrum around the country” produced by Parrish to classify the position of LPFM activists as a misrepresentation of the threat translator-mongering poses to true community radio. A more thorough understanding of the regulatory regime leads to the opposite conclusion.

III. Faith as a Free Pass?

Unfortunately, what starts out as a pretty solid work of investigative journalism ends with a thud when it falls into the trap of false balance, the practice whereby opposing sides of a story are given equal credence even though the evidence may overwhelmingly favor one side over the other.

Schulman traveled to Twin Falls and met with Clark Parrish to get his take on the situation. Parrish is described as “an earnest and friendly man of forty-eight who laughs hard and often…nothing like the diabolical character some of his critics make him out to be.” Although the translator speculation and trafficking scheme clearly perverts the spirit, if not the letter, of the FCC’s spectrum allocation practices, Parrish doesn’t see it that way. “We did something really big,” he readily admits. But, “I certainly have done nothing illegal.”

The fulcrum of this story, couched in the subject of religion as it is, should have been whether such speculation and trafficking is morally or ethically correct. The FCC, it would seem, has already thought about this, as referenced above. The exploitation of a significant weakness in the FCC rules to acquire a massive amount of FM spectrum which, in the process, locks out an uncounted number of other potential users – all to simply rebroadcast a biblical drone from Idaho – to me, is immoral and unethical. It’s a terrible abuse of what is supposed to be a public resource, to be utilized in the public interest.

Parrish, however, is driven by faith – “called upon by God,” Schulman writes, to evangelize – and as a result wears moral blinders. If an unjust law works in his favor, the more the better, apparently. Parrish spent years getting to the point where he could assemble a marketplace for FM translator stations. It was brilliantly planned and executed. And now, the self-professed “translator king” is reaping the spoils: he is a one-man Clear Channel in terms of the number of FM station licenses that may ultimately come under his control. Much harm but no foul equals clear conscience, because the end justifies the means.

“Do we not like the programming, is that part of the issue?,” Parrish remarks at one stage. “Translators have been primarily implemented by Christian broadcasters. Maybe there’s a problem with that.”

The story was bound to come round to this point eventually. The insinuation of persecution to disarm critics is a tired tactic of Christians, especially of the rightist evangelical stripe that Parrish and those engaged in the speculation and trafficking of translators preach. It fails in the face of the fact that when religious broadcasters conspire to own and control thousands of radio stations across the country, all spouting the same spiritual propaganda, and openly leverage this media-power to influence the course of a nation to the near-exclusive enrichment of their own kind, they’re not being persecuted. They’re on a crusade. And that is a problem indeed.

To be fair, Schulman does address this point somewhat in the piece, but it’s done in such a way as to re-emphasize Parrish’s kindly personality and thus provoke skepticism that a problem actually exists here.

What Parrish may program on his budding radio empire is beside the point; the FCC is mandated to be content-neutral. There is outright collusion in the speculation and trafficking of FM radio station construction permits taking place between a large group of broadcasters today. That they by and large happen to be evangelical, fundamentalist Christian broadcasters is undisputed. It is somewhat of a surprise to find self-professed and motivated Christians acting this way, but their otherwise-honest faith does not countenance wholesale abuse of the public airwaves. The means do not justify the end.

The balance-treatment leaves some important questions unanswered. The piece tells a good story, following a well-crafted he-said/she-said sort of structure, but I’ve got to wonder if that’s in part due to an imbalance in the hard evidence available. For example, was there any examination of RAM/EB/WRL documentation beyond the fancy engineering studies Schulman saw? Why were the translator applications diluted between two companies? Where does Parrish go to church? What is its denomination or affiliation? (Its pastor is referenced twice.) Parrish worked for Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls and Costa Mesa; RAM/EB’s major clients have been Calvary Chapel churches. The omission of this detail, in particular, further amplifies the false balance in play.

In some respects the treatment of a story like this is no big surprise. Not all the facts are known yet. For example, the level and intricacy of collusion between religious broadcasters to hoard and trade in FM radio spectrum has yet to be explored in detail: Parrish is singled out for being the most egregious, but he is most definitely not alone. And CJR is certainly not alone in giving the topic of right-wing religious media a light touch. All told, a little more light shed on this subject is better than no light at all.