By a bizarre combination of circumstances, West Tisbury this year is one of only 67 communities in the whole United States which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is offering as a location for a new non-commercial educational (NCE) FM radio station. West Tisbury is the only town in Massachusetts so favored.
The radio channels are in the commercial band (92.1 to 107.9 on the dial) but were reassigned for NCE use for the listed communities. Only non-commercial entities may apply. This includes schools, colleges, churches, Indian tribes, and non-profit organizations with an educational purpose. The transmitter for the new station would not have to be physically within the town, but its signal must cover it.
The application window offered by the FCC is from February 19 to 26 of this year.
Paul Munafo, manager of WVVY, a low-power FM station (LPFM), told The Times in a telephone interview that the all-volunteer NCE station will apply for the available full-power license. WVVY (93.7) now operates at 100 watts and has a range of only three to five miles.
The new station could be a “class A” station of 6,000 watts, which would make it the strongest signal in the area. Non-commercial WCAI (90.1) broadcasts from Woods Hole at 1,300 watts, and WNAN (91.1) on Nantucket, at 2,300 watts. Local commercial station WMVY (92.7) broadcasts at 3,000 watts.
For WVVY or anyone else to apply is a difficult process. The applicant will need to have a transmitter and access to a tall tower, a studio, and a link to the transmitter. Because of windmill and cell-tower controversies, there will be many problems with building a tower on Martha’s Vineyard or finding space on an existing tower.
There will also be a large capital investment. Mr. Munafo told The Times that raising funds before February 26 presents a huge challenge. “It would be wonderful if there were someone with experience in public radio who could help us,” he said.
However, Mr. Munafo said that the station will apply to the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for a start-up grant. The deadline for most PTFP grant applications is February 4. Funds for operating expenses may be available from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Between grant applications and the FCC license application, the all-volunteer staff faces a blizzard of paperwork.
If there is more than one applicant, the FCC has a complicated system of deciding who gets the license. It awards points for lack of content overlap with existing stations, population coverage, residency of board members, and fewest other stations owned or applied for. The “tiebreaker of last resort” is to require that applicants share air time.
A successful applicant will have three years to build a station and begin broadcasting. WVVY would then have to give up its LPFM license.
Why West Tisbury?
Station licenses are much coveted. In 2008, the FCC received approximately 30,000 inquiries from persons seeking to start radio stations. But NCE filing windows are rare. The last one was in October of 2007. This time, the FCC has chosen 67 communities, including small and medium-sized communities with names like Big Pine Key, Fla.; Pinckneyville, Ill.; Chewelah, Wash.; Shenandoah, Va.; Terre Haute, Ind.; and Boseman, Mont. Why is West Tisbury, astonishingly, on the list?
The workings of the bureaucratic mind are impossible to fathom, but there are two possibilities. Perhaps the notice may stem from an application made to the FCC in 1999 by Russ Oasis of Edgartown for a commercial license to operate an FM station in West Tisbury. Mr. Oasis was unsuccessful. He told The Times in a telephone interview that the application process at the time was convoluted and cumbersome. It has now been improved somewhat, he said. However, the FCC did rule in 1999 that West Tisbury met its media-coverage criteria for a station location, though it did not open a filing window in that year. Strange as it seems, Mr. Oasis’s unsuccessful commercial application may be the reason that West Tisbury is on the FCC’s non-commercial list for this year. Mr. Oasis, whose business is buying and selling commercial radio stations, is not interested in NCE radio.
There is another possibility. At almost the same time that Mr. Oasis was applying to the FCC, amateurs were at work. Their project began in 1999, when a dedicated group determined to focus their energies to provide the Island community with alternative, diverse, commercial-free, free-form radio. At first, they had no clue how they could pull this off short of a guerilla stratagem. Bill Morancy and a few friends first aired a low-power FM transmitter out of a barn in West Tisbury. Called Free Radio Martha’s Vineyard, the pirate outlet was supported by many Islanders who sought an alternative to pre-packaged radio. They believed that the airwaves belonged to the people, not large companies, and they wanted more diverse programming and a voice in the choice of that programming, according to WVVY’s web site. Technology got in the way of good intentions, however: the FCC shut down the station within a week because its signal interfered with communications at the airport. Perhaps the illegal counterculture station placed West Tisbury in the FCC’s non-commercial memory banks.
In January 2000, the FCC announced a new, low-power FM service that made LPFM radio licenses available to local, non-profit groups. Applications from Massachusetts were initially accepted in June, 2001. Martha’s Vineyard Community Radio, Inc, was thus formed to secure such a prize and finally did so in December, 2004, having been assigned the call letters WVVY and a frequency 93.7 MHz. The group raised a reported $10,000 to construct an antenna tower, and to begin transmitting before the expiration of the FCC charter at the end of 2007. WVVY went live December 6, 2007. It’s ready to move up.