It’s springtime in the Texas Hill Country. Bluebonnets are blooming and new-borne critters are rustling through the underbrush. Over in Austin, the South by Southwest festivities are drawing down and the students are coming back from Spring Break. But out in the little community of Dripping Springs, a battle is brewing, a battle over the airwaves themselves.
And it truly does look like a David vs Goliath rematch—a small nonprofit radio station taking on one of the true giants in broadcasting, Clear Channel Communications. According to its website, Clear Channel today reaches over 110 million listeners on over 850 stations nationwide, five of those being in the Austin area itself. They also syndicate 90 programs and services to more than 5,000 station affiliations, as well as owning and operating more that 140 stations in Australia and New Zealand. All in all, last year they boasted of nearly 6 billion dollars in revenue. So with numbers like that the San Antonio-based corporation seems the very epitome of a giant, and as with most giants it’s used to getting its way.
And, for better or worse, KDRP fits into the role of the over-matched underdog all too well. On their website the Mission Statement says, in part:
The Principle Broadcasting Foundation will primarily offer community, family and spiritual educational programming, community events such as High School Sporting Events from the various surrounding areas will often be broadcast in addition to public awareness programs regarding community issues. Also offered will be music programming, Public Service Announcements, News and Feature Programs that are responsive to the needs and interest of the local community.
And it is the music programming that is drawing a wider audience to the station, mainly due to some savvy decisions by General Manager Ryan Schuh and Operations Manager Denver O’Neal. Last year they added two radio legends to their on-air talent pool—Sammy Allred and Larry Monroe. Both had long careers on larger stations in Austin but had parted ways with their former employers. KDRP realized that both still had loyal followings and returned them to the airwaves last year, Sammy in a familiar early-morning slot and Larry back on in the evenings. And recently the station announced its newest show and host—“290 Radio,” hosted by singer/songwriter Paula Nelson. With its signal reaching through the Hill Country, maybe proud papa Willie can tune her in whenever he’s in town. Or he can always pick it up streaming worldwide.
So, to look at these two entities from afar, it would be hard to imagine that they would ever come into conflict; their goals are just too disparate. Clear Channel is obviously out for maximum profit and clout in the broadcasting world, and KDRP is a nonprofit low-power station set up to broadcast small town community events and Texas-flavored music. Their two paths should never cross. But a battle is in fact brewing and now KDRP is lawyering up.
And the basis for that battle has been building for some time now, going back at least until June of 2011. Much of that was covered at the time, both by our site, here, and by Austin NBC affiliate KXAN reporter Jim Swift, here. In a nutshell, the problem is one that gets down to the very heart of any broadcaster, the sanctity of their signal. Starting in June 2011 KDRP began hearing reports from listeners about strange content coming in, something besides the small-town chat shows and church news they were expecting. Instead it was sports talk radio, along with ads for what many considered unsuitable products—such as adult-oriented businesses and breast augmentation clinics. With these ads sometimes coming in during actual church sermons, it was pretty disturbing for any parishioners tuning in from home.
Most of the background on just how that came to be was covered in depth in the previous articles, but in brief, it turns out that local station KVET, a Clear Channel affliate, had secured antennae space on a tower actually owned by a major religious broadcaster, Educational Media Foundation. And then through some fairly intricate moves between the giants, the EMF tower was moved closer to KDRP’s tower, resulting in two stations now broadcasting on the 103.1 frequency with only 15 miles separating their towers. Now anyone trying to listen to KDRP on their assigned frequency may well get KVET instead. Or, even more frustrating, they will get “drift” between the two and basically keep switching back and forth unexpectedly.
Of course, there is a government agency specifically set up to prevent and handle such disputes, the Federal Communications Commission. But, as with many national agencies, the rules and regulations there can best be described as byzantine. And there is always the suspicion that politics and financial clout is what carries the day at FCC, something that wouldn’t bode well for a tiny entity such as KDRP. Things certainly haven’t gotten off to an auspicious start with the agency. According to a letter recently published on the KDRP website, they first contacted the FCC and the owners of KVET about the alleged interference and were instructed to obtain letters of concern from the public. Those letters were then sent to the FCC, who ordered KVET to investigate. In reply, KVET argued that the letters were mainly written by KDRP underwriters, volunteers, sponsors and other fans and therefore were not legitimate complaints. That seems to be a pretty specious argument, and as the KDRP letter goes on to state :
Apparently the FCC will only accept complaints from passive listeners or complete strangers to KDRP. If so, this raises a question: How would anyone know they are receiving interference to the 103.1 signal if they are not already a fan of KDRP?
How indeed. . . . If the actual listeners being affected are not considered valid complainants, then it is hard to see how any station anywhere could ever make a case for signal interference. Casual or first-time listeners would have no idea that anything was wrong, or know who to file a complaint with if they did. Seems like a bit of pretzel logic, and since KVET refuses to acknowledge the interference or return phone calls, things seem to be heading for litigation.
Of course the FCC could well step in and actually do something to enforce their own guidelines—the guidelines on signal interference are pretty clear. But federal agencies are notoriously slow weighing in on local matters, or at least they usually are. And that’s where this story takes an unexpected twist. This whole issue first came about when Clear Channel was able to move that transmission tower closer to Austin from another location, and that requires an OK from the FCC. And the usual processing time for such a ruling is generally six to nine months. In this case the FCC expedited the process and approved it in just eight days. This is being viewed by many as a sign that Clear Channel has the inside track at the FCC, and with all of their money and political connections the suspicion doesn’t seem far-fetched.
So now the little station in Dripping Springs is preparing to do battle as the David against the Goliath of Clear Channel, and they’re doing their best to get the word out. As an opening salvo they held a “Free the Airwaves” benefit concert in Austin the same weekend as the SXSW Music Festival. People came to the beautiful oak garden at Hill’s Cafe for a lengthy show that featured such acts as the above-mentioned Paula Nelson as well as Clay McClinton, George Devore and a surprise visit from Waylon Jenning’s son, Shooter, who performed a spirited set. There was also a silent auction and speeches from station personnel and from the attorney who is going to be heading the legal maneuvers to return KDRP’s signal back to its rightful owners and listeners.
There are a lot of changes going on in the radio world right now, and it’s difficult to determine just where this will all end. The FCC is already working on frequency allotments for further LP-FM stations such as KDRP, and there is always concern there about market saturation and diversity with conglomerates such as Clear Channel. As those new frequencies get assigned and the new generation of small stations come on line, there will doubtless be further conflicts between small community stations and the media giants. So perhaps the bellwether for the future may be the fate of this tiny little station out in the Hill Country. The David taking on the Goliath on his own turf, right there at the FCC. As of now it’s impossible to say how David will do in “DvG2,” or how long it might take to resolve. But for the listeners out in the Hill Country tuning in to 103.1, the only mystery for them lies in just what they might hear.