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Feature: God Squads Fall From Grace

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Thanks to curious loopholes in the FCC's FM licensing rules, several religious broadcast companies have created national networks on the cheap using low-power, mostly-automated FM transmitters. Using their intimate familiarity with FCC bureaucracy, these companies also engage in spectrum hoarding and speculation.

The practice of spectrum speculation is nothing new, it's a kind of side-industry in the broadcast business. Although they very seldom actually build a radio station, speculators apply for and acquire radio station construction permits and then sell them to the highest bidder. Channel spaces on the FM dial are a finite commodity - where supply is low and demand high a savvy speculator can make quite a bit of money if they have permits to build radio stations in growing markets.

Mounting evidence suggests that some religious broadcast companies, which are ostensibly non-commercial and listener-supported, are manipulating the FCC's licensing system for profit. Doubly damning is the fact that the spectrum being monetized could have provided thousands of opportunities for low-power FM community radio of the truly local kind. Indeed, these same speculators also manage to benefit from the LPFM proceedings - turning stations intended to be live and local into gospel rebroadcasters.

It is not clear if rules have been broken here: that is something best left for the FCC to say. Hopefully, it will say something soon, because this entire ungodly saga is about ready to consume what precious little access remains to the FM dial.

The Translator Station

What makes religious radio networks like Calvary Satellite Network, American Family Radio, and EMF Broadcasting such effective mass media platforms is the fact that they do not own and run many full-power FM stations. Full-power FM stations are also full-service stations, meaning they require local staff and constant attention. Instead, religious broadcast networks employ what are known as FM Translator stations. Translators are a special class of FM radio station: they are limited to a maximum broadcast power of 250 watts or less and by law may only rebroadcast another program source.

The FCC's translator station rules were initially designed (in 1970) to assist those FM stations which, in certain circumstances (mostly terrain-related), needed more than one frequency to serve their primary coverage area. Commercial translator stations usually sit near the fringe of a main station's signal. They are not much more than a transmitter and antenna plugged into a radio receiver tuned to the parent station.

In 1990 the FCC made major amendments to the FM translator service rules. One big change allowed non-commercial broadcasters to operate translator stations independent of any parent station (aka satellite-fed).

This provided a lift for a few community radio stations and many public radio systems, which applied for FM translators as a way to extend their service areas cheaply. Since translators are simply repeaters of another signal, they cost little to install and maintain. Sometimes a local benefactor will pick up the expense of installing and maintaining a translator.

Religious broadcasters exploited the economic poential of this rule change most effectively. Evangelists, especially, saw the light. Several flavors of Christian radio network now flourish, ranging from the Roman Catholic to the Southern Baptist. Most consist of one or two full-power FM stations somewhere, uplinked via satellite to a growing chain of dozens or hundreds of translator signals.

Success is a self-fulfilling prophecy: more translators increases the reach of one's evangelism, attracting more faithful who provide more support. Then it's just a matter of investing returns in growth. A translator station more than pays for itself over time; this is guaranteed if startup and/or maintenance costs are pre-paid.

The myriad "godcasters" in existence worship the same Jesus but in widely varying ways, although many share a special bond: a knack for mastering the FCC paperwork jungle.

Next --> Sampling the Translator-Mongers --> p. 1, 2, 3