Last month, corporate radio giant Saga Communications petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to deny license renewal to five small, nonprofit Charlottesville stations. It’s a move one station owner calls “a blatant attempt at economic bullying through litigation” that if successful, would shut down the area’s only progressive talk radio and programming geared toward African American audiences.
Saga Communications, headquartered in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, is the parent company of local radio stations WINA, 3WV, and The Corner. Saga earned nearly $125 million in 2018 and owns 79 FM and 34 AM radio stations in 27 markets, Its subsidiary, Tidewater Communications LLC, filed the petition.
Low-power stations have a median range of three and a half miles and were created to foster community radio during a period of massive radio consolidation, following the deregulation of broadcast companies under the 1996 Telecommunications Act.
The five low-power stations—WPVC 94.7FM progressive talk, WXRK-LP 92.3 Rock Hits, WVAI-LP 101.3 Jamz, and oldies stations WREN-LP 97.9 and WKMZ-LP 96.5 in Ruckersville—are independently owned.
Because four of them share space in Seminole Square, Saga says they have a management agreement, which is an FCC no-no. Saga also contends the stations air commercials rather than underwriting announcements, run simulcast programs, and filed applications that are “rife with false certifications,” according to the petition.
WNRN founder Mike Friend owns WXRK-LP, and he’s the first of the five stations to file a response in opposition to Saga’s petition. “It’s legal junk” and a deliberate “misinterpretation” of FCC rules, says Friend. He raised money on air to hire an attorney.
Friend says Saga has gone after low-power stations before. In 2015 Saga petitioned the FCC to revoke the license of WLCQ-LP, a Christian contemporary station in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, for equipment violations.
And in 2004, Saga alleged that KFLO-LP in Jonesboro, Arkansas, was violating its non-commercial license by airing announcements that “sound suspiciously like commercials,” according to Wikipedia. The FCC “admonished the station,” but denied the rest of Saga’s complaint.
“They think there’s a finite pie of ad dollars that they think they deserve,” says Friend. “If we went off the air tomorrow, 3WV would not gain a single listener.”
The allegation that stung WPVC owner Jeff Lenert the most was Saga’s claim that the stations provide no community good or services. “I cannot stand by while they say we do nothing,” he says, listing his station’s public service efforts, including 21 hours a week of the area’s only Spanish-language broadcasting.
“We’ve had an immigration attorney on air to take questions,” he says. “We really focus on women’s health in the Hispanic community.” And the station just partnered with a nonprofit to provide 1,400 backpacks to kids going back to school.
In the midst of dealing with the Saga petition, he says “pro-Confederate statue folks” have been contacting his station’s underwriters with “implied threats.”
By having to hire a lawyer, Lenert says his expenses have tripled and his revenues decreased because of his underwriters “fear of retribution” from the “neo-Confederates.”
Lenert compares Saga going after his tiny station to “The New York Times coming after C-VILLE.” He says, “Their intent, from my perspective, is to drive us into bankruptcy.”
On the plus side, people have been calling and coming into the station “telling me how unfair this is,” he says. The number of people listening has gone up, as have donations, he adds.
“Shameful,” says City Council candidate Michael Payne about the Saga petition on Facebook. “Corporate attacks on local media outlets are a threat to a robust free press and local democratic debate.”
Christina Dunbar-Hester is a University of Southern California professor who wrote Low Power to the People: Pirates, Protest, and Activism in FM Radio Activism. She says the Saga petition “does strike me as basically harassment because they have more resources.”
“The threat of pulling licenses sounds like someone knows that’s going to be very stressful and burdensome for those organizations,” she adds.
While the FCC wants to make sure low-power stations are independently owned, there’s an “economy of scale” for small stations sharing resources, says Dunbar-Hester.
“We are nothing more than roommates,” says Lenert about the other stations.
The most serious Saga allegation, says Dunbar-Hester, is blurring the line between underwriting and commercials.
Lenert says that’s “easily fixed.” And Friend says, “We maintain otherwise.”
Nathan Moore, general manager of WTJU, says the FCC typically levies fines that hurt, but are payable. “They renew pretty much everyone unless it’s totally egregious.”
He notes, “David might not be perfect, but no one roots for Goliath.”
Saga attorney Gary Smithwick declined to comment about the petition. And WINA general manager Mike Chiumento, who oversaw the monitoring of the LP stations’ underwriting announcements, did not respond to a call from C-VILLE.
A footnote in Saga’s petition makes clear that competition is a concern. “Whether the renewal applicants are abusing their non-tax status is beyond the scope of this petition or the jurisdiction of the commission. Yet, the competition of an entity that does not pay federal taxes with business entities like Tidewater is grossly unfair.”
Updated to correct typo in WPVC call letters and WXRK’s frequency, 10/16.