Saga 375

Saga Communications is taking aim at a group of low-power FMs operating the Charlottesville, VA market which it says have been violating a variety of FCC rules governing LPFM operations. That includes casting aside the stations’ noncommercial educational mission to run a de facto cluster in the market where Saga owns six stations. “The Commission should not tolerate this for one more moment,” the company said in a petition filed this week.

Saga alleged the LPFMs are “regularly” broadcasting commercial announcements, two of the stations are simulcasting programs, and the applications they’ve filed with the FCC seeking new license terms are “rife with false certifications.” The petition asks the FCC to hold an evidentiary hearing to look into what’s going on—and says once that happens the agency will agree: the licenses shouldn’t be renewed. “Taken together, these violations constitute a pattern of abuse that the Commission must not countenance,” it said.

The LPFMs at the center of the petition include Blue Ridge Free Media’s “Rock Hits 92.3” WXRK-LP, Charlottesville; Air Mix Virginia’s urban “101.3 Jamz” WVAI-LP; Promise Land Communications’ talk WPVC-LP (94.7), Genesis Communications’ “Real Oldies 97.9” WREN-LP and its simulcast on Gateway Media’s WKMZ-LP (96.5). Together the LPFMs have handed their sales and marketing efforts over to Experience Media Sales, a rep firm that’s owned by Mike McBlair. He’s also the morning show host on WREN-LP.

The filing includes sales promotional literature that markets four of the five LPFMs on a joint rate card, using the term “our stations” to refer to the group. “The use of the possessive pronoun is unmistakably a reference to common ownership or common management of the LPFM stations,” argued Saga. It also alleged Genesis Communications’ WREN-LP has an “illegal” operating permit that’s allowed it to simulcast “Real Oldies 97.9” on Gateway Media’s WKMZ-LP (96.5).

Experience Media Sales’ website explicitly says each of the LPFMs is “independently owned and operated” and the stations say they’ve formed what they’re calling the Virginia Radio Coop as a way to divide the rent on an office and tower site and to share technical expenses.

But in order for the Virginia Radio Coop to exist, Saga said there must be either an oral or written agreement among the LPFMs. And that would violate FCC rules which prohibit such management and operating agreements among low-power stations. Under federal law “no LPFM licensee may enter into an operating agreement of any type, including a time brokerage or management agreement, with either a full power broadcast station or another LPFM station.”

Experience Media Sales says it only accepts underwriting for the LPFMs that comply with the FCC rules—not allowing calls to action, qualitative language, or comparative language—but Saga called that an “elaborate sham” designed to skirt the limits on what’s permitted for noncommercial stations. It offered the FCC a purported rate card that includes spot rates and classes of time for the LPFMs. Saga also claimed several of the ads that have run violated those limits. And in what could be a bigger problem for the low-power license holders if determined to be true by the Commission, are allegations leveled by Saga that the operators provided false information to the FCC on their renewal applications. That includes some of the potential relationships among board members at the various stations.

“This case bears out the concerns many broadcasters expressed when the Commission was developing the regulatory framework for LPFM stations,” said Saga in the petition. “Here, under the guide of operating noncommercial educational LPFM stations, the renewal applicants are operating a traditional radio station ‘cluster’ offering multiple program formats—blatantly and illegally selling and broadcasting commercial announcements in competition with commercial broadcasters.”

The LPFMs involved have not yet responded to Saga’s petition.