After five years, BSR awaits FCC decision on Providence frequency

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Since filing a bid with the Federal Communications Commission five years ago to operate its own signal, Brown Student Radio, the oldest student-run radio station in the country, is awaiting a final verdict from the FCC.

After 69 years of local broadcasting, BSR still does not own its own signal, in part due to the red tape surrounding the FCC’s allocation of low-power FM licenses to grassroots radio stations nationwide.

“BSR’s goal is to be able to control a station 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” said BSR General Manager Shauna Duffy ’04. BSR currently rents seven hours per night from a station owned by the Wheeler School, and broadcasts from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. during the academic year.

However, Duffy said, “The Wheeler School is very conservative. Having our own station would allow us more freedom on the air.”

The Wheeler tower is located in Seekonk, Mass., about 6 miles outside of Providence. The distance reduces the quality of the signal at Brown. “BSR is hard to pick up from the dorms on campus,” Duffy noted.

An LPFM license would enable BSR to control a Providence-based signal that would better serve Brown’s population and the larger Providence community, she said.

In 2000, the FCC authorized a new, affordable low-power FM radio service designed to enhance community-oriented educational radio broadcasting. BSR was among 15 groups that applied for permission to run 96.5 FM – a Providence-based frequency.

In order to qualify for a license, organizations must have a local presence and a two-year history prior to filing for a license, and must promise to create local educational programming.

Since the initial application five years ago, a number of contending groups have been eliminated from the running, either due to flaws in their applications or loss of interest, leaving BSR to negotiate with four other groups competing for the station – Zion Bible College, Ephese Haitian Church, Casa de Oracion and Providence Community Radio. None of the competing groups could be reached for comment.

The FCC encouraged applicants to join together to develop a plan for sharing the station, promising the license to the largest team. The successful groups would then have joint membership of the station and would share costs and air time.

For the past five years, BSR attempted to develop partnerships with various other groups in order to secure a license, Duffy said.

But these efforts ended Monday, the deadline to submit a plan for “teaming up.” The three religious groups united, leaving out BSR.

But BSR still has a chance. “If one or more group is disqualified, we could be back to square one,” Duffy said.

The FCC’s rules and regulations seem to be developed as the process unfolds, she added.

With the help of Peter Tannenwald ’64, a Washington-based communications lawyer who has been doing pro bono legal work for BSR, the student station was able to file petitions with the FCC against three of the competing community organizations vying for the license in an attempt to disqualify them.

“We’ve been lucky to have great alumni who have been very supportive,” Duffy said.

BSR urged the FCC to re-examine the other groups’ applications and in some cases pointed to specific flaws that might indeed eliminate contenders from the applicant pool, she said. While the groups had the opportunity to defend themselves, none did.

“We won’t have any idea about the outcome until the end of the summer,” Duffy said.

In the meantime, BSR staff and listeners are hoping for the passage of a bill introduced by senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., which aims to open up more licenses nationwide, including one or two more in Providence. The ratification of this bill would decrease the competition for airwaves in the Providence area and might allow BSR to finally achieve its goal.

“My hope is that students contact their senators in order to support the McCain-Leahy bill. That’s the best thing people can do to support community radio,” Duffy said.