Lake Charles Radio Wars: A Case Study in the Fight Over Radio’s Non-Commercial Band Programming

Over eighteen months ago, in early 2000, broadcasts from Christian network American Family Radio excluded all National Public Radio signals in Lake Charles, LA. Recent press in the New York Times [“Religious and Public Stations Battle for Share of Radio Dial,” Blaine Hardin, September 15, 2002] portrayed the events as a war between conservative religious fundamentalists and staunch liberals.

Lake Charles-area media, however, do not view the conflict in terms of political or religious ideologies. Lake Charles sees itself in a legal tangle where home-grown programming on the non-commercial band falls prey to rich, savvy corporations. American Family Radio [AFR] rose legitimately to power in the region, but area media and citizens claim that AFR used “loopholes” in FCC laws to drown out local programming.

Lake Charles-area media have no complaint with AFR’s programming per se. Sonny Marks, reporter at Lake Charles’ daily American Press, has been covering the AFR story. An NPR enthusiast, he tries to remain “sensitive to the different sides of the NPR/AFR issue,” he says. When an AFR listener claimed that Marks’ updates on the situation were “biased,” Marks says, “I appreciated [the listener] caring enough to call.”

While Marks adopts a carefully non-judgmental tolerance for AFR listeners and broadcasts, Jim Serra, manager of Lake Charles’ KPLC-TV, goes further. Serra estimates that “most residents welcome American Family Radio.” Serra himself says, “Our goal is not to get rid of American Family Radio.”

AFR broke no laws to offend local media, either. Before AFR, Lake Charles received NPR broadcasts from KRVS-FM in Lafayette, LA, and KVLU-FM in Beaumont, TX. The signals came from transmitters, unmanned antennae that repeat signals from more distant stations. KRVS and KVLU both had Class C licenses for the transmitters.

According to the FCC, however, transmitters with Class C licenses can be overpowered by stations with Class D licenses if the Class C transmitters might potentially interfere with the signals from Class D stations. So, when AFR applied for two Class D licenses in Lake Charles, it was determined that NPR transmissions from KRVS and KVLU might interfere with AFR’s broadcasts. The two Class C transmitters were ousted. AFR’s two fully legal full-service stations appeared on the air.

“The rules are clear,” says Marvin Sanders, general manager of the AFR network, emphasizing the legality of the network’s actions. “We are simply searching for frequencies that the FCC says are available and applying for them.”

Media in and around Lake Charles acknowledge that AFR acted legally. R. Reese Fuller, senior writer at the weekly Times of Acadiana, based in Lafayette, LA, explains, “The FCC considers religious broadcasters [to be] educators and allows them to broadcast in the non-profit, educational band [along with public radio]. They’re not doing anything illegal.”

Monroe Price, professor of law and director of the Media, Law, and Society Program at Cardoza Law School, agrees. The FCC’s policies, he believes, take “more of a bird’s-eye view” of the media landscape. In the FCC’s broader perspective, the particular plight of public radio – which often lacks adequate funding or concerted lobbying, he notes – is likely not an area of particular concern. As a result, Price says, “there are loopholes” in FCC regulations that groups such as AFR can use to their advantage.

Media in and around Lake Charles object to AFR’s use of so-called FCC “loopholes” at the expense of local programming. Serra, for one, describes the non-commercial band – where public radio and religious broadcasters vie for air space – as a forum for diversity. KRVS and KLVU provided Lake Charles with “a multiplicity of voices. In one fell swoop,” he says, “those all went away” with the advent of AFR’s two stations. In his view, AFR, a powerful “vested interest,” has silenced “worthwhile” public radio.

Likewise, Fuller believes that AFR used its clout to sorely limit Lake Charles’ listening options. AFR, he says, is “a very aggressive group. What’s unfortunate for the communities they muscle their way into is that there is apparently only room for the AFR’s vision of God and no one else’s.”

In fact, AFR’s current Lake Charles programming does not originate locally. All programming for the two stations comes from AFR’s headquarters in Tupelo, MS. None of the broadcasts are demographically tailored for Lake Charles.

A skeptical Fuller wonders when AFR will produce local programming. Fuller interviewed the local manager for AFR’s stations over sixteen months ago. His investigative report for The Times of Acadiana, “Divine Intervention,” was published on June 8, 2001. “I was told…at the time that there would be a functioning control room [at the Lake Charles stations] to originate local programming,” he recounts. “According to the New York Times article, there is still no broadcasting equipment for either station.”

Local programming will arrive on AFR’s Lake Charles stations “in a matter of weeks,” as of October 10th, Sanders says. “…Our studio construction was delayed for a year,” he explains, “trying to satisfy all the bureaucratic and technical demands of the Louisiana government. [In mid-September we were] given our occupancy permit so that local station studio construction could begin.” Storms Isidore and Lili again delayed work. But “we are doing local programming,” Sanders states, “and we didn’t use loopholes to get around [it].”

Soon after such locally geared programming as KRVS-FM’s “Bonjour Louisiane”
disappeared and AFR went on air, “a groundswell of local support,” in Marks’ words, arose for public radio. The Lake Charles Public Radio Association was formed. Comprised of concerned citizens, LCPRA aims to bring NPR back to the region.

Most recently, LCPRA has collaborated with KRVS-FM to bring that station’s signal from Lafayette into Lake Charles. LCPRA has organized fundraisers that, along with federal grant money, supported the hoist of a new antenna and transmitter for KRVS.

A 100,000-watt transmitter atop a 1250-foot tower and pole extension will soon receive KRVS’ signal directly. The transmitter does not rebroadcast the KRVS signal, as the old translator station once did. The transmitter, therefore, falls under KRVS’ “Class C [protected] license, and, as such, cannot be bumped [off the air],” according to Carolyn Woosley, head of LCPRA.

LCPRA’s further initiatives, as listed on their Web site, include sponsoring “Lake Charles-oriented programming” on KRVS; “exploring the possibility of strengthening the signal” of KVLU-FM in Beaumont, TX; and helping McNeese State University in Lake Charles to start its own full-service station.

While these measures address Lake Charles’ immediate lack of public radio, members of the local media advise widespread action to preserve public broadcasting. “I think that there is a trend,” observes Marks, citing “communities in Oregon and Indiana where this [the favoring of Class D stations over Class C translators] has also happened.” Indeed, an AFR full-power station bumped an NPR translator station off the air in Grants Pass, OR, back in 1997.

While the FCC has now stopped granting Class C and Class D licenses for an indefinite time, those in and around Lake Charles still are not satisfied. Serra states that Congress should “definitely re-examine” the FCC regulations under which AFR established itself in the city. Fuller sees “loopholes that AFR has been using” that should be closed.

Woosley offers specific legislative changes to foster grassroots programming. Religious and educational programming should have separate sections of the non-profit band, she suggests. When public radio competes with religious or other corporate broadcasters for air space, public radio often loses out, Woosley explains, because “religious broadcasters have greater resources for acquiring stations than do most educational and non-profit organizations.” With its own designated air space, public radio would not have to compete with richer broadcasters, she contends.

“[S]tations which mandate community-based programming, such as KRVS, should be privileged” as well, Woosley continues. She recommends that such stations and their translators receive protection “from being bumped” by such corporations as AFR, which “appears to…have no such mandate” for locally specific programming.

Though they are thinking nationally, Lake-Charles area citizen and media are acting locally to, in Serra’s words, “clean up the mess which has been left” by AFR. Their goal? Leslie Berman, LCPRA secretary, frames it succinctly: “Local radio responsive to local communities.”

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