Groups jostle to launch new Whidbey FM station

[RTM note: the Serviceberry Institute FM application mentioned in the article below represents a collaboration between Hollow Earth Radio, Serviceberry, SEIU Healthcare 775NW, and Reclaim the Media.]

by BILL VIRGIN, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

There's not a lot of open real estate left on the radio dial, so when the Federal Communications Commission opens up an application window for one of the few remaining frequencies, a lot of people get interested.

That's what's happening with the allocation of 89.9, in the non-commercial section of the FM dial, for the north Puget Sound market including Whidbey Island and Port Townsend. More than a dozen groups have expressed interest in operating a station on that frequency, including stations already operating in Seattle and Everett.

One of the applicants is the non-profit group that operates KEXP-FM/90.3 (the station is licensed to the University of Washington).

KEXP Executive Director Tom Mara says one of the station's limiting factors is its relatively low power (4,700 watts, vs. 100,000 for KUOW). KEXP's signal reaches Everett but "starts dissipating at Marysville," he says. Adding an outlet on Whidbey Island would be "a nice dovetail for our station."

In fact, that was the theory behind KEXP's agreement three years ago to take over a station in the Tacoma area. But KEXP eventually gave up operating what became KXOT-FM/91.7, citing the financial burden (it's now operated by KUOW).

Mara says the cost of setting up a new station at 89.9 that would carry KEXP's existing programming would be less than what was involved with KXOT.

Another group interested in 89.9 for Whidbey Island and Port Townsend is Everett-based community station KSER-FM/90.7.

Station Manager Bruce Wirth says KSER's signal covered Whidbey and Port Townsend reasonably well when the transmitter was in Lynnwood. When it moved to Everett, Whidbey's terrain cut the signal's reach.

Wirth says KSER already extensively covers issues of interest to those markets, such as the disruption of ferry service, but in adding 89.9 it would work with local groups and residents, as well as the island's low-power FM station, to provide local programming.

KSER would pay for the expansion with listener contributions and federal and state grants, he adds.

Other applicants for the frequency, according to Wirth and FCC filings: Skagit Valley College, the Serviceberry Institute (based in Port Townsend), Sacred Heart Radio, Family Worship Center Church, Memorial Community Church, Les Seraphim, Calvary Chapel of Marysville, American Educational Broadcasting and Harvest Time Apostolic Ministries.

The FCC has no timeline for how fast it will make a decision; KSER says it could take a year, and once a construction permit is granted, the winner has three years to get a station on the air.

The allocation for 89.9 isn't the only frequency for which the FCC is reviewing applications. It also has on file an application from Radio Port Townsend, a community group that wants to launch a station at 91.5.

Mara says, "A lot of non-commercials are trying to chase down any available frequency."

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey