Session debates options for FM

By M. Robert Berg

The debate over a new FM cable service in DeKalb became a bit more heated Monday night at the DeKalb City Council workshop session.

Since Oct. 6 the franchise agreement dealing with FM service between DeKalb and Warner Cable has been suspended, because of new FCC regulations requiring retransmission consent from any radio station sent via Warner Cable to its customers.

The franchise agreement required Warner Cable to offer “not less than 40 FM stations,” which became impossible under the time deadlines because of the need for consent from all stations carried.

At a public hearing last week, residents and local radio station managers spoke out about the options available to replace the old service.

One option available is to replace the FM service with Digital Cable Radio (DCR), DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas stated in a memo to the council. “This option would provide a minimum of 30 channels of digital radio programming without announcers and commercial messages, and include channels that cross the spectrum of music from classical to hard rock,” he stated.

Another option available was to go back to the status quo, except the 40 stations would have to grant their consent, Nicklas said.

Currently Warner does not have the equipment to “screen” out stations, said Andy Bast, general manager of Warner Cable. “The technology we employ currently is basically an antenna on a tower,” he said. “What hits the antenna goes to the customers. There is no selectivity capability.”

Warner Cable would be in violation of FCC regulations if it started rebroadcasting without equipment to screen out stations that did not give consent, Bast said. “If atmospheric conditions are right, we may accidentally pick up a distant signal and broadcast it (without consent).”

However, this problem may be remediated by a petition presented to the FCC, said Michael Lazar, General Manager of Northern Public Radio. “As far as retransmission consent from distant stations, there is a pending petition (presented to the) FCC that would waive this provision,” Lazar said.

A third option would be a mixture of the first two options, and this is the one the council voted to have the staff use in negotiations with Warner Cable.

“There is a fairly broad middle ground, acknowledging Warner’s current ability to offer DCR to subscribers,” Nicklas said. “We could negotiate a new language requirement, requiring a certain number of stations (to be broadcast).”

First Ward Ald. Amy Polzin said she was in favor of pursuing this option. “I’ve had a chance to see this (DCR),” she said. “(The third option) will provide things for everyone.”

One alderman though, was not in favor of this agreement, and said keeping the status quo would be the best alternative. “Keeping the franchise agreement as is gives us a good bargaining chip (in negotiations with Warner Cable),” said Fifth Ward Ald. Bessie Chronopoulos.

Chronopoulos was concerned with the extra charge for the DCR service and the fact that the stations residents like to listen to from Chicago and locally may not be included in the new package, and could then only be received via home antennas, hurting sound quality.

“You’re charging people for canned muzak,” Chronopoulos said. “It’s stacked music, with no personnel, so you don’t have a lot of overhead, and you’re asking people to shell out more (money).”

Bast defended DCR. “We are creating a system that’s unique,” he said. “We don’t want to put a white elephant out there, (but a system that) can support itself in a regulated environment.”

Local stations that cannot be received over the airwaves by customers will be included in the new agreement, Bast said. “We will put on any station unavailable, but we are not donating access to stations readily available by turning the knob on the stereo to ‘tuner,'” Bast said. “This would take up a band where we could add a future audio or video program.”

The combined cable service and DCR package will now go to negotiations between the city’s staff and Warner Cable, who will bring their final product back to council for a vote.

“This option (DCR) would provide a minimum of 30 channels of digital radio programming without announcers and commercial messages, and include channels that cross the spectrum of music from classical to hard rock.”