FCC Approves Calvary Chapel LPFMs

This one totally flew under my radar: apparently two weeks ago the FCC ruled that fourteen Calvary Chapel churches could get low-power FM licenses.

Last year the FCC held thirty applications from Calvary Chapel churches because they essentially submitted cookie cutter applications. The FCC Audio Bureau Chief Peter Doyle wrote that,

there is nothing in their statements of educational purpose to distinguish these applicants from other Calvary Chapel applicants who filed identical applications for LPFM stations, or national Calvary Chapel radio companies such as CSN International and Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls that own numerous full-service and FM translator stations throughout the country.

True community-based LPFM advocates got upset about these Calvary Chapel applications because CSN and Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls have together set up an enormous network of satellite-fed translator stations that take up frequencies that might otherwise have gone to true locally-programmed LPFM stations. Thus the similarity of the individual churches’ applications to stuff submitted by CSN and Twin Falls, combined with the apparent connection between them all, gave the impression that these LPFMs would be used primarily as satellite affiliates, rather than true local stations.

However, in the FCC’s July 20th decision (download PDF) Doyle decided that each Calvary Chapel LPFM applicant “has adistinct local presence and mission in their respective proposed communities.” The Commission allowed them to submit additional documentation on this question, and from that concluded

that each applicant provides its respective community with a variety of programs and activities in the areas of religious education, fellowship, youth programs and strengthening family and
social values. … and is therefore eligible to become an LPFM station licensee.

Although it’s disappointing that the FCC has decided to award more stations to this ad hoc network, it shouldn’t be surprising, since it should have been very clear to the applicants the exact changes they needed to make to make their applications look different from each other and seems like they would be more localized. The FCC gave them a second chance to do it right, and they did.

I also have to recognize that it would have been difficult for the FCC to deny these applications after allowing the supplemental materials to be submitted — it really would have been best if the Commission could have simply denied them based on a failure to do it right in the first place, sending them back to the back of the line. Given the scarcity of LPFM frequencies I think it would have been much fairer to reopen for applications in those areas for which these applications were submitted.

The organization of the Calvary Chapel church is quite advantageous for creating this ad hoc network of radio stations that essentially air the same programming, but are, on paper, separately owned and operated. The FCC acknowledges this in a footnote

In their joint declaration, Joint Petitioners declare that: each is an autonomous, “independent locally-governed
church”; each paid its own legal bills and prosecuted its application “free from the influence or control” from any
outside group; each petitioner is separately incorporated and is governed by its own board and has its own officers
and pastor; … each is financed entirely by
contributions from its local members and receives no money from any national church organization; the Calvary
Chapel movement does not have a parent church or any organizational structure whatsoever; … and petitioners have no
agreements or understandings of any type with CSN, Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls or any other Calvary Chapel church regarding programming to be broadcast.

However, the Commission also says that this fact was beside the point, provided the individual churches demonstrated community involvement, which the Commission believes they have.

The only infraction that could be hung on these Calvary Chapel applicants was their carbon-copy applications, and once the Commission gave them the opportunity to file that opportunity was lost. But then, for the last twenty years, the FCC hasn’t been known as a harsh regulator of licensed or wanna-be licensed stations.

One hope will be that the management behind these stations will realize that they will be watched, and can’t just turn around and air nothing but CSN programming (although they may air some). They will have to at least attempt to be local stations, even though the last thing our FM dials need is more religious stations.