Feeling the Squeeze

A Federal Communications Commission rule that allows commercial radio stations to share airtime with educational stations means student journalists are being pushed out.

The voices of students who broadcast from their high school and college radio stations are in danger of being silenced due to a seldom-invoked Federal Communications Commission rule that says stations may have to share their airtime with others if they are on the air less than 12 hours a day.

Off-campus non-profit organizations are using this time-share agreement rule to file for demands to share broadcast time or take over non-commercial school stations. The FCC requires radio stations to renew their licenses every eight years. During the five-month renewal process period each station has, organizations can file time-share challenges or petitions to deny licenses.

One such organization is Hoosier Public Radio Corporation, an Indiana radio organization with religious ties, which filed time share challenges against radio stations at one Kentucky college and four high schools and one college in Indiana, Franklin College’s WFCI.

“[Hoosier Public Radio Corp.] is trying to do this to multiple educational frequencies [as well as ours], which further adds to the inequity of the situation,” said Jennifer Sansfacon, a student and WFCI’s General Manager. “By taking away these opportunities, [Hoosier Public Radio Corp.] is taking away the chance for someone to try something new, step outside the box, and maybe find their calling in life.”

In an April article by Reclaim the Media, the director of Hoosier Public Radio Corp., Marty Hensley, said he planned to broadcast community news, public service announcements, local business and sports, music, weather and reports on drunk driving, teen pregnancy, drug use and jobs on WFCI.

“If they’re not using their license 24 hours a day, we just want to use the hours they’re not using and help them operate the station,” Hensley said.

WFCI has not received its license renewal, and has been awaiting a renewal since Hoosier Public Radio Corp. filed a challenge in August.

WFCI is just one school station that has been targeted. Since the FCC began its mandatory radio station license renewal process in 2003, radio stations at 16 high schools and four colleges in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio have been threatened with time share challenges, according to Collegiate Broadcasters Inc.

Neither the organization nor the students profit off a time share agreement. (School stations can sell stock investment advertising, but mostly survive financially off of donations or school or government funding). The students and the organization would either come to an agreement about how airtime hours would be divided between them, or the two parties could negotiate a time settlement and have it approved by the FCC. According to FCC rules, only noncommercial content can be aired on a noncommercial, educational frequency, but the FCC leaves it up to the organization and school to determine what content to individually air. If no time-share agreement is reached and the FCC determines that the school station is not using its frequency to the fullest extent--because of serious rule violations or not being on the air full-time--the students could face the possibility of losing their broadcast rights if the FCC takes away the school’s license. The FCC owns all frequencies.

Radio stations are required to “serve the public interest” by making themselves aware of key problems or issues in their communities and presenting some understanding of them to the public through programs and announcements about local issues, according to FCC regulations. If a station fails to meet this requirement, or if it violates FCC rules against obscene language or indecency, the FCC may revoke the license or another party may file a petition to deny the station’s permit in order to take over the station. All stations--commercial and noncommercial-- must follow the rules of serving the public interest and use their frequency to the fullest extent in order to retain broadcasting rights. However, the FCC is in the process of determining how to measure and define service to the community, according to FCC files.

The organizations that have filed time-share challenges against schools are Hoosier Public Radio Corp., Lincoln Land Communications and R B Schools. Hoosier Public Radio Corp. has targeted four high schools and one college in Indiana and one college in Kentucky. Lincoln Land Communications, also an Indiana company, has targeted one high school in Indiana. R B Schools, a nonprofit educational institution with religious ties that is located in Texas, has targeted 11 high schools and two colleges in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio.

Of those threatened, just four high school stations and one college station have been granted license renewals: Ben Davis High School’s WBDG, Carmel High School’s WHJE, Franklin Central High School’s WRFT, Pendleton Heights High School’s WEEM, all in Indiana; and Western Kentucky University’s WKPB. According to a report published by Collegiate Broadcasters Inc., the stations’ licenses were renewed because the applications against the schools--filed by Hoosier Public Radio Corp.--were “procedurally defective.” The report says that the director, Marty Hensley, had failed to file the applications properly or had filed after the five-month deadline.

Three stations in Illinois were granted license renewals that were later retracted by the FCC for further consideration, including Glenbrook North and Glenbrook South High Schools’ WGBK, Homewood-Flossmoor High School’s WHFH and New Trier Township High School’s WNTH.

All of the other stations’ cases are still pending.

Southfield High School’s radio station, WSHJ, is one of the stations whose license renewal was challenged by R B Schools.

In its FCC filing, R B Schools said they planned to broadcast educational programming on WSHJ, including literature, history, social sciences, health, hygiene, nutrition, child development, interpersonal relationships and civics, according to a November article by the Detroit Free Press. R B Schools does not own any radio stations, but its president, Linda de Romanett, is involved with several radio stations that broadcast religious programming.

In the article, student Kyle Covington, the production manager at WSHJ, said he disagreed with R B School’s involvement in the station because of what the organization intends to broadcast.

“People rely on [WSHJ] being a particular style,” Covington said. “[R B School’s programming] would go against what we stand for.”

According to its Web site, WSHJ airs mostly a mixture of hip-hop and rap music but students also broadcast informational and educational programming.

Students at Lakota East High School’s WLHS are also upset with R B School’s filing against their station. WLHS is on air 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Like other stations, De Romanett claims WLHS is not using its frequency to the fullest extent with its programming; music, sports and talk shows. De Romanett said R B Schools could improve the quality of WLHS and other stations through the programming she plans to broadcast.

“This program is a really big deal to everyone at this station and it’s a great educational tool,” music manager Ryann Walton said. “A lot of people come to school just to come to [WLHS]. It doesn’t make sense how [R B Schools] would want to take that away from us.”

De Romanett said she believes R B Schools will be successful in its filings because the organization has a right to the airtime.

“The law is clear that if the airtime’s not being used, other people can use it for educational [purposes],” de Romanett said. “The airtime belongs to the public and should be allowed to be used.”

De Romanett added that R B Schools would want students to assist with its programming, and said she thinks students would learn more with “something other than a music program.”

The reasons organizations go after school stations specifically may lie in perceptions of high school radio stations. Since the 1950s, educational radio stations have historically been used “solely or primarily as training facilities for students,” according to a 1995 report published by Ralph Carmode, communications professor at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa. The stations have been categorized as “underfinanced, understaffed, underequipped, underpromoted and underresearched.”

“[School stations] tend to be underutilized. They are often on-air just during school hours, and [some] broadcast in an immature fashion,” said Joe Misiewicz, the vice president for Academic Relations at the Broadcast Education Association. “If they are not operating a full-fledged station, it makes it difficult to justify allowing them to have the license.”

Jennifer Sansfacon of Franklin College’s WFCI called Hoosier Public Radio Corp.’s Marty Hensley’s challenge “deplorable.”

“We operate on a frequency that is reserved for educational purposes, so we--the students--can learn how to operate and run a working station,” Sansfacon said. “By challenging our license, [Hensley] has the potential to take away a tremendous learning tool that gives hands-on experience. I am [a] student that tried out the radio on a whim [at this radio station]; I have since chosen to make a career out of it.”

John Krull, WFCI’s faculty adviser, said Hensley told the station that students would be permitted to broadcast a minimum of 20 hours per week, but said he would retain the authority to decide what was broadcast.

“What Mr. Hensley [is] attempting to do [is] leverage his way into forcing disadvantageous timeshares,” Krull said.

On Jan. 31, WFCI entered into a rebroadcast consent agreement with WFYI, a National Public Radio affiliate in Indianapolis. The agreement allows WFCI to rebroadcast NPR news and information that serves as a “teaching tool” for student journalists, according to Krull. WFYI also agreed to take WFCI students on as interns. The agreement has resulted in an increase of WFCI’s airtime to 24 hours a day. However, WFCI has not been granted a license renewal because Hensley’s request for its airtime has not been dismissed.

Susan McGraw, the vice president of the Michigan Association of Educational Broadcasters, said school stations are targeted for airtime because they generally have less available funding to legally fight time share challenges than do commercial stations.

Gregg Neilson, a teacher-ambassador for the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation and station manager of Nathan Hale High School’s station, KNHC in Seattle, agrees. In 1983, the FCC told KNHC that it faced losing its license because the station’s airtime had fallen below 12 hours a day for about six months, due to a “budget downturn.” The school operated the station as normal throughout the ordeal, and received its license in 1990, after a seven-year battle.

“[The FCC] figured they’d just wear us down, cost us a lot of money and we’d have to give up,” Neilson said. “[They probably thought], ‘How can they survive a legal challenge? [KNHC] doesn’t have enough resources or time or public opinion that will help them.’”

The Pendleton Heights High School station, WEEM, received its license renewal from the FCC on March 7. According to station manager Jeff Dupont, Hoosier Public Radio Corp. also filed a petition to deny WEEM’s license renewal.

WEEM was not on-air for 12 hours a day when Hensley filed his challenge.

Dupont said the station was on-air for 10 hours a day Monday through Friday, when students were at school. In addition, WEEM broadcasted nine hours on Saturdays. Prior to Hensley’s advances, Dupont said the station had been planning to extend its hours but had lacked the funding for digital broadcasting equipment, so the station only broadcasted when students were available to be on-air.

WEEM has since acquired the funding for the equipment and is now broadcasting 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Hensley’s motions for time-share were denied.

Carmel High School’s student-run radio station, WHJE, also received its license renewal. The station’s battle began in mid-August 2004 when Hoosier Public Radio Corp. filed challenges against the station, and ended with a letter from the FCC granting its license renewal on March 3.

Tom Schoeller, the station’s manager, said the students, who were “gung-ho” about the station, were “torn up” over the prospect of losing rights to their station.

First-year DJ Corrina Gonzalez said she had just started working at the station when she learned of the challenge. Gonzalez said she and the staff were upset at the thought that they could lose their rights to broadcast because of Hoosier Public Radio Corp.’s challenge.

“I think he shouldn’t be messing with [students],” Gonzalez said, adding that she believes WHJE was vulnerable because it is “just a school station” that is primarily used as a learning environment for students and does not employ professional broadcasters.

“It worried us that we [could] get our rights taken away,” Gonzalez said.

Schoeller disputed Hoosier Public Radio Corp.’s claim that the students were not using the station’s frequency to its fullest extent, saying that WHJE had been on the air for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since 1981.

According to two April articles by Collegiate Broadcasters Inc., Hoosier Public Broadcasting Corp. recently filed petitions to reconsider the dismissal of its time-share applications against Carmel High School’s WHJE, Ben Davis High School’s WBDG, Franklin Central High School’s WRFT, Pendleton Heights High School’s WEEM, all in Indiana; and Western Kentucky University’s WKPB. All the stations were already granted license renewals. If Hoosier Public Radio Corp.’s petitions are granted, a hearing will likely follow. However, the article said, if the petitions are denied, director Marty Hensley could file review petitions, which would compel the FCC to review its decision-making process regarding each license renewal.

John Morris, the executive director of the Indiana Association of School Broadcasters, said organizations are interested in using school frequencies for their own benefit. Morris said the organization’s possible gain is a tremendous loss for students.

“The big [problem] is the loss of a potential opportunity for students to be on a station and not just to learn radio but to learn some of the business sense, the ability to communicate,” Morris said. “To have somebody come in and try to force shared airtime is something most [high school] stations would not be for.”

Will Robedee, the vice chair for Collegiate Broadcasters Inc., said this is the first time school stations have been targeted “on this scale.”

“[There has been] an unprecedented number of filing against these stations,” Robedee said.

Robedee said he does not know why school radio stations have been suddenly targeted, other than the fact that the last three years have been license renewal years. According to a FCC staff member, Robedee said, applications for time-share are being filed “practically for the first time” since the time-share agreement rule was written in 1980.

The FCC is currently reviewing all regulations concerning its radio and television stations.

Robedee said noncommercial, educational radio stations can avoid becoming targets for organizations by acquiring the funds for automation devices including CD players, media players, iPods or computers, that would allow them to be on the air full-time. In addition, Robedee said stations need to purchase a remote control to alert the station management of emergencies, which range from $1,000 to $3,000. Robedee said stations also need to make themselves aware of FCC rules, including time-share agreements.

“The FCC is taking a look at the rules and how they’re applied in this instance,” Robedee said, adding that in the meantime, the potential threat of time-share challenges needs to be addressed by “making stations aware that this is a problem and getting them to be proactive in preventing this from happening in the future.”

reports, Spring 2005