Federal regulators issued a six-month freeze Thursday on new low-power broadcast licenses after allegations that three Idaho companies made $800,000 last year selling the government-issued permits to religious broadcasters.
The move comes a week after a coalition of religious, community and media-watchdog groups complained to the Federal Communications Commission that Radio Assist Ministry Inc., Edgewater Broadcasting Inc. and World Link Radio Inc. were selling permits soon after acquiring them at no cost from the FCC.
Representatives of the three Twin Falls companies did not return calls seeking comment. FCC officials declined to comment.
In its order instituting the freeze, the agency said that it would consider whether to restrict both outside and multiple ownership of low-powered facilities “in order to give local citizens a voice in their community.”
Coalition members had urged the FCC to stop granting permits for so-called radio translator facilities, which relay satellite or radio signals into local communities.
Critics allege that the Idaho companies, in aggressively acquiring and brokering the licenses mostly to Christian groups, are depriving other churches, community organizations, colleges and public broadcasters of media access via low-power broadcast facilities.
A group of enterprising Christian groups -- including offshoots of Costa Mesa-based Calvary Chapel Church Inc. and Horizon Christian Fellowship in San Diego -- have used translator permits to build something akin to a nationwide broadcast network.
Mike Stocklin, operations director of Calvary Satellite Network in Twin Falls, said the nonprofit organization had 389 translator licenses that it acquired from the FCC to distribute programming nationwide. But he said the network had no relationship with the three Twin Falls companies.
“We recognize, as of late, that there have been some other people that have done some vast filings for these licenses,” Stocklin said. “I guess when there is some confusion in the marketplace it’s best to step back and sort things out.”
Unlike many other congregations, the evangelical Calvary Chapel does not have a central hierarchy. It allows potential pastors to apply for permission to use the church’s name and operate largely independently, somewhat like franchisees. Experts say the Calvary churches playing the most direct role in developing radio networks are Calvary Chapel of Twin Falls and Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Of the 13,000 applications submitted for translator permits during one week in March 2003, critics allege, nearly one-third were filed by the Idaho companies and affiliates of Calvary Chapel Church.
The coalition in its petition said the Idaho companies sold 85 of the permits to the religious broadcasters, which then built translator facilities that retransmit broadcasts from Calvary Satellite Network. The network offers “praise and worship music 24 hours a day to communities throughout the United States and the world,” according to the church’s website.
The churches, which have not been accused of wrongdoing, have been moving into low-power broadcasting aggressively. Calvary Chapel of Fort Lauderdale paid the Idaho companies more than $314,000 to acquire 22 translator permits.
Supporters of low-power radio -- stations using 100 watts or less -- have told agency officials that they fear that the proliferation of translator facilities will gobble up scarce airwaves that could be used by low-power radio stations run by community organizations and other nonprofit groups.
“If it’s a choice between a local low-power FM facility providing local programming and a translator bringing in a signal from hundreds of miles away via satellite, the local programming should win,” said Harold Feld, a lawyer for the coalition.