Calvary Chapel, LPFM and Plausible Deniability

Today’s San Francisco Chronicle has an article on the Church incursion into low-power FM, making up half the applications currently approved by the FCC for new stations.

And what organization should turn up as a leading force in this movement? Why, none other than our pals at Calvary Chapel:

This month, the Calvary Chapel Radio Ministry of Costa Mesa in Orange County hosted 170 mostly Christian low-power broadcasters, offering them operational tips as well as up to “16 hours per day, seven days a week” of programming beamed in via satellite, according to its Web site. …
Church officials say 140 Calvary Chapels nationwide either have or are pursuing low-power licenses.

Just in case nobody gets confused, Calvary Chapel Radio Ministry of Costa Mesa is essentially the same organization behind Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls, Idaho. According to their own website, together they are responsible for CSN International, the radio force behind hundreds of low-power translator stations, and now, apparently, as many as 140 LPFM stations.

This is the same Calvary Chapel that seems to be trafficking in translator licenses from the 2003 translator licensing window, as John at DIYmedia has investigated:

Of the 13,000 applications filed, more than one-third were traced to four organizations. Two were familiar: Calvary Chapel (and its derivatives) accounted for 385 translator applications while Educational Media Foundation filed 875. The two largest filers, however, were unknowns: Radio Assist Ministry (2,454) and Edgewater Broadcasting (1,766). …

So far the Edgewater/RAM duo have been granted more than 1,000 construction permits for FM translator stations around the country. …

Now the mastermind behind Edgewater/RAM has begun to cash in on the hoarded station permits. …

The biggest deal of them all involved three listed transactions totaling $326,500, which paid for 26 FM translators in Florida. REC’s data lists the buyer as “Reach Communications (Calvary Chapel Church, Inc.).” The second-largest group deal involved 20 translator permits in California, Oregon, and Washington, sold for $219,000. REC’s data lists the buyer as “Horizon Christian Fellowship.” Horizon is a well-endowed group whose founder came to Christ through a Calvary Chapel church in California.

As the program director of CSN told me in an e-mail, the man raking in the bucks at Edgewater/RAM is actually an ex-employee of CSN/Calvary Chapel. However he stringently denied having anything to do with the more than two dozen LPFM license applications that were denied by the FCC due to the fact that

“there is nothing in their statements of educational purpose to distinguish these applicants from the other Calvary Chapel applicants who filed identical applications for licenses.”

And yet, here is the Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa holding workshops to help get Calvary Chapel churches LPFM licenses so they can carry 16 hours a day of satellite-delivered CSN programming. Of course, by the FCC’s LPFM rules, 16 is the maxmimum number of hours in a broadcast day that cannot be locally originated. Surely, that’s just a small speedbump in expanding the CSN radio network, since all those eight hours could be programmed from midnight to 8 AM (and maybe a little later on Sundays in order to include church services).

National Lawyers Guild attorney Alan Korn neatly sums up for the Chronicle what’s wrong with this picture:

“the danger is that when you have one organization basically using a network of low-power stations to broadcast the same material, you run the risk of getting the same sort of consolidation that’s happening with the (full-power) stations.”

And not just consolidation, but consolidation that spits in the eye of the spirit and intent of LPFM as a specifically community radio service, and that takes away valuable spectrum from stations that would serve as real community resources.

What’s interesting about Calvary Chapel is that they use somewhat decentralized organizing methods. The church itself has very little hierarchy and central management.

It appears that individual churches become affiliated with the larger Calvary Chapel network by going through an application process. The Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa is apparently the central point for this review.

According to the Wikipedia entry on Calvary Chapel, they don’t affiliate churches directly, but rather affiliate individual pastors, who then run their own churches.

What this means is that, in effect, all of the individual Calvary Chapel churches are independent but affiliated, so the folks at CSN have plausible deniability for the actions of individual Calvary Chapel churches who apply for translators or LPFM licenses. CSN can say “oh, that’s not us,” when individual churches submit cookie-cutter LPFM license apps, even though those stations intended to air a majority of CSN satellite programming.

What you end up with is a multi-headed beast that’s hard to stop — you can cut off one head, but then another if off setting up stations. If the FCC rejects 30 applications from Calvary Chapel churches, does that have any effect on any other applications from other Calvary Chapels? Does it have an effect on the big two, in Costa Mesa and Twin Falls? And, most importantly, does the flood of suspicious LPFM applications cast a shadow on the 330+ stations in the CSN empire?

The end result is a gross abuse of the non-commercial radio licensing rules. Calvary Channel and their ilk are doing an end run around the fact that they can’t find or afford new full-power licenses by setting up translators anywhere and everywhere, even though translators are really intended just to bolster the regional signal for established stations. Now they’re pushing the boundaries of LPFM licensing by having lots of “affiliated” churches submit individual applications to carry 2/3 satellite programming on what are supposed to be local community stations.

And the icing on this cake is that it seems like Calvary Chapel is using an intermediary, who used to work for them, to snap up translator licenses and pass them on, for a fee, of course.

The big lingering questions in the translator deal are these: if Calvary Chapel submitted 356 of its own applications, why does it need to buy more licenses from Edgewater/RAM? Also, why did Edgewater/RAM submit so many more applications, and therefore, apparently get more licenses?

Given the hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, this can’t be a simple story of “Ooops, Calvary Chapel forgot to submit enough applications.”

Stay tuned.

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