Public Radio in 2008

by Evelyn Massaro

microphone-516043_640From 1984 until July 2000, Marquette listeners enjoyed clear reception of WNMU-FM, Public Radio 90 programming on a translator frequency located at 102.3 FM. The translator acted as a booster antenna for the station’s primary radio signal and helped fill in poor reception areas within the city of Marquette.
Unfortunately, only a station’s primary frequency is protected by the FCC from interference by other stations, which for WNMU-FM is 90.1 FM in Marquette.
In July 2000, Public Radio 90 was forced to take the 102.3 translator off the air when WCMM-FM in Manistique received permission from the FCC to change frequencies to 102.5 FM. WCMM-FM requested the change in order to allow a Green Bay station (WZOR-FM) to increase power. The loss of the 102.3 frequency resulted in inconsistent reception quality for Public Radio 90 listeners within the City of Marquette. Many people along the shoreline or around rock cuts and woods continue to have a difficult time receiving the signal. Not surprisingly, reception problems, particularly in the Marquette area, are the No. 1 issue mentioned by listeners. Since losing the Marquette translator frequency in 2000, WNMU-FM has made numerous attempts to remedy reception issues.
Public Radio 90 was unsuccessful in attempts to purchase another established FM station in the Marquette area, and, to make matters worse, from 2000 until October 2007, the FCC would not accept any applications for new noncommercial full-power FM radio stations. Public Radio 90 has not had the opportunity to apply for any new FM licenses.
In early 2003, the FCC opened a one-week application window for FM translator frequencies. WNMU-FM Public Radio 90 invested $5,000 in engineering and legal fees to do a frequency search of the Marquette area and to apply for the available translator frequencies.
The FCC was so overwhelmed by the number of applications submitted it decided it would award licenses only to applicants who did not have any competing applications for the same frequency. That, unfortunately, was not the case for WNMU-FM—there were mutually exclusive applications for every frequency for which we applied. Back to Square 1.
As Public Radio 90 struggled to resolve reception problems in Marquette caused by a weak signal, other on-air issues were compounded by the thirty-three-year-old transmitter, which was showing serious signs of aging and experiencing issues that impacted reliability. (According to a 2002 report, the average useful life of a broadcast transmitter is fifteen years.)
So in April 2006, when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting offered stations up to $85,000 in matching grant dollars to replace their current transmitters with new digital transmitters, Public Radio 90 took advantage of this opportunity to replace the aging transmitter and prepare for the future of digital broadcasting at the same time.
Once again, Public Radio 90 listeners came through with more than $70,000 in local matching dollars in order to secure the CPB funds and the new transmitter was installed in December 2006.
The installation of the new transmitter is just the first phase of the project. In order to add digital side channels, tower and antenna modifications, new transmission line and equipment upgrades are needed. Also needed is to installation of the digital studio to transmitter link (STL), a project Public Radio 90 will do in conjunction with Public TV13 to save money and time off-air.
The first digital-side channels should be on the air by spring 2008. The plan is to start by adding a news and information channel and an all-classical channel. The anticipated price tag to complete digital conversion and add the first two digital side channels is approximately $165,000.
Much a surprise, in the summer of 2007, the FCC announced they would open a one-week application window in October for new full-power, noncommercial FM stations. This is the first time since 2000 that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has accepted applications for full-power noncommercial FM licenses.
The strong financial commitment of Public Radio 90 listeners gave us the confidence to invest nearly $20,000 in engineering and legal fees to apply for three new FM full-power frequencies in Marquette (89.3 FM), Houghton (88.9 FM) and Iron Mountain (89.5 FM).
No one anticipated the FCC would take this action, so the money invested to file these applications is not in the station’s budget for this fiscal year.
As you can imagine, Public Radio 90 is not the only station that wants these licenses. There are competing applications for all three frequencies for which WNMU applied. The FCC has established a negotiation process for competing entities in hopes that a settlement can be reached or technical amendments can be made without going to a new point system, which it will be using for the first time to award these new noncommercial licenses, a process which could take up to two years. There are no guarantees that Public Radio 90 will be awarded any of the frequencies.
In anticipation of the future possibilities for expanding Public Radio 90 services, several listener surveys will be conducted during the coming year to get input on its future plans and what direction listeners think the station should be heading.
With the continued strong support of listeners, Public Radio 90 will be here for many years to come.
—Evelyn Massaro

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