Vermont Public Radio’s expansion plans may cause static
By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian
Posted May 10, 2007
Talk to any radio station owner in Vermont and they’ll tell you it’s not Clear Channel Communications they worry about when it comes to market dominance or competition for frequencies — it’s Vermont Public Radio.
It’s no secret that Vermont Public Radio (VPR) wants to provide a dual statewide radio network — one channel exclusively for classical music and one for news and information.
Getting there may take some time, however, as there is a limited number of available frequencies in Vermont that can be used for non-commercial uses. That hasn’t stopped VPR in the past from expanding its reach — in Bennington and Manchester the public broadcaster bought up commercial signals.
Unlike commercial owners, there is no limit to the number of frequencies that VPR can own in Vermont. FCC rules limit the number of commercial stations for most broadcasters. For example, in a market with 30 to 44 commercial stations, one owner can control up to seven stations. In a market with 15 to 29 commercial radio stations, one owner can control up to six stations.
This year, VPR’s talks with St. Michael’s College to purchase the school’s radio station was quashed after students raised concerns about losing access to the low-watt station. Currently, VPR has an agreement to air the BBC World Channel on WWPV (88.7 FM) whenever students are not on the air.
VPR had hoped to use that signal as a way to broadcast its new all-classical music station in the crowded Chittenden County radio market. Now, it will have to wait on whether it can get a construction permit for some other licenses it has requested from the FCC. And, later this fall the FCC will open up the spectrum to non-commercial licenses for the first time in years, and maybe the last time for years to come, according to some industry watchers.
At that time, VPR will be able, along with perhaps other non-profit organizations, to make a pitch for new licenses in Vermont. But, getting a license is just the first step. Then, you’ve got to find a place to put a tower and make sure you’re not interfering with any neighbors on the FM dial.
VPR is no stranger to the FCC licensing process. In the past several years, it has been granted more than a dozen licenses for translators — low-power booster signals — around the state, has bought up two commercial stations, and bought an unused signal in Island Pond.
In 1999, VPR bought WBTN-FM in Bennington and sold off its sister AM station to a local businessman.
In November 2006, VPR purchased WJAN-FM in Manchester/Sunderland, a former country station out of Rutland. The signal serves the Manchester area and the towns along U.S. 7, but reaches as far southwest as Albany and Saratoga Springs. VPR also broadcasts on a low-power translator, 92.5 FM in Manchester. In addition, VPR Classical, VPR’s 24-hour classical music service, is heard via a low power translator at 106.9-FM in the area.
VPR has also been granted a license, which cost the station nearly $150,000, in Island Pond but it has yet to find a tower site. That signal will serve Brighton, Newport, Morgan, Charleston, and other communities in that part of the Northeast Kingdom with classical music.
Building for the future
Despite what its competitors believe to be VPR’s aggressiveness, the public radio outlet did not put a bid on any of the Clear Channel Communications stations in Vermont.
Instead, the Vermont stations were purchased as part of a 36-market deal valued at $452 million with a new, Florida-based company called GoodRadio.TV, run by Dean Goodman, a former radio and television executive for Ion Media Networks.
To satisfy its growing listeners — estimated at 141,000 in 2003 but now topping nearly 160,000 listeners per week and 23,000 contributing households — VPR wants to build essentially two statewide channels, some of which will broadcast in high-definition (HD) radio, and some of which will stream live on the Internet.
Tinkering with a popular format is risky for any radio operator, and VPR managers are very aware of that fact.
“In the short run, it’s risky because it changes something that is successful, but in the long run with two discreet services running 24 hours a day, each will build more loyalty,” said Mark Vogelzang, VPR’s president and general manager.
“It took 25 years to build the current VPR network to what it is and that has taken patient, loyal listener support and us filing applications to find the right frequencies at the right location,” added Vogelzang. “I think there is some sense that we could make this happen overnight, but it will take some time and it could take a number of years.”
Vogelzang said Internet broadcasting technology has improved greatly over the years, allowing VPR to reach listeners in all parts of the state — even if they don’t have a high-speed connection.
“That’s something that we didn’t have 10 years ago,” he said.
The use of the Internet, and HD radio — new technology that VPR can boast being the first radio station in Vermont to bring to consumers — may be ways to help bring their dual statewide services to Vermonters, said Vogelzang.
The “public” interest
Unlike commercial broadcasters, there is no limit on the number of licenses that VPR can own in the Vermont market, even if some of those signals were originally commercial.
For some commercial broadcasters, the concern begins to rise when VPR picks up commercial translators and stations.
“That’s where it becomes squabble time because as commercial broadcasters you are operating under rules that limit the number of stations you can own and they are operating on a public radio frequency and what gives them the ability to buy these additional frequencies is that they have a huge revenue stream, and can afford it,” said Dan Dubonnet, vice president of Hall Communications, which owns WOKO-FM and several other stations in the region.
Competing against VPR is not easy, notes Dubonnet, given their large listenership and substantial revenue stream. According to reports on file with the Internal Revenue Service, VPR had revenues of $7.3 million in 2003, including a special gift of more than $1 million to be used specifically for providing classical music, with expenses of $5.2 million. A year before, they had revenues of $4.9 million and expenses of $4.6 million.
Dubonnet said those numbers are very big for the Vermont market.
“I don’t know any station in this state that is billing $4 million. None,” said Dubonnet. And, few have their audience base either, he admits.
“They are a force because they have a large Vermont audience and per capita they have one of the largest public radio audiences in the country and they provide a service a lot of Vermonters want,” said Dubonnet, who listens to VPR’s jazz program.
Dubonnet, like other commercial broadcasters, marvels at VPR’s annual budget, and its ability to continuously go to the well and meet fundraising targets and increase its underwriting.
One commercial broadcaster, while he marvels at it, also believes VPR is draining not only money from typical commercial radio stations, but from other cultural non-profit organizations.
“The thing that bothers me is that they strip mine the state asking for money while choral societies, orchestras, and youth orchestras are struggling to raise money and at a time when federal support for the arts is challenged. All of these organizations are trying to find a way to raise money, but it’s hard out there,” said Ken Squier, who owns the Radio Vermont Group, which includes WDEV-FM, a news, sports, and music station that services much of central Vermont and whose signal can be heard in parts of northwestern Vermont, and WCVT-FM, the state’s only commercial classical station.
“We think what we do is better; it’s local and we get a lot more local news in our broadcasts than they do and we don’t have their resources,” said Squier.
Squier considers VPR a competitor in the market, not simply a public asset.
“They treat us as a competitor — at least that’s what they’ve told us — which is different than what we thought public radio should be,” said Squier.
Squier said VPR’s popularity makes it hard for the public to turn a cold shoulder to their fundraising appeals. “You don’t want it to go away because they really do provide services, there is no question about it.”
But, he said with an increasing number of translators and licensed stations, many broadcasters call VPR the “Clear Channel of Vermont” because of their sheer dominance in the market, and their appetite for growth and expansion.
“They make us rethink all the time what we have to do and we consider ourselves a public community station,” said Squier. “And, it wouldn’t be so bad if they just had money coming in from the public, or the government, or from underwriting — but they’re getting it from all sides and that makes it difficult for us, and for all of these organizations in the community that also need support."