Breaking into the broadcasting business is never easy, but it is about to get a little easier. The Federal Communications Commission has effectively reduced the number of miles required between FM broadcasting stations, adding some 500 new stations -- mainly in the rural South and Midwest -- to the approximately 4,000 already approved. Any citizen who is not a convicted felon may apply.
These are not exactly major markets that are opeing up. Most of the newly authorized stations -- for which the FCC may begin accepting applications as early as this fall -- will lie small, Class A stations, which run on no more than three kilowatts of power and throw signals no farther than 15 miles. The idea is simply to fill in the rural gaps left by the major urban stations. Nevertheless, one of those gaps can make for a cozy little business.
Take Peter and Carolyn Hunn. They own and run WHRC-FM, which may be the tiniest radio station in the country. Their house, about the size of a two-car garage, doubles as a broadcasting studio, with all the equipment squeezed into a corner of the living room. The couple founded the station in 1982 to serve Port Henry, N.Y., a community of 5,000 people near New York's Lake Champlain. The airwaves there are as clear as the country sky, with only one other station 15 miles south competing for room on the Adirondack Valley's FM band.
It took the Hunns years of hunting for an open channel before they found Port Henry and got their FM license. With $500 worth of used equipment, plus $40,000 in Small Business Administration and family loans for a used transmitter, a new tower, and a small house, the Hunns set up their studio and started blasting the valley with a potpourri of programming designed for a diverse audience. Their audience ranges from ski buffs and college students in nearby Middlebury, Vt., to farmers in the immediate township, and they entertain listeners with everything from soft raock and classical music to polkas and hymns.
It is not easy work. For Peter Hunn, a 12-year radio veteran, a typical day begins at 6 a.m. He broadcasts live until 1 p.m., then goes out to sell advertising time to local merchants, while his wife runs tapes of prerecorded shows. Sign-off time is generally 10 p.m.; Sundays they shut down a few hours earlier. "We'll never have any kids this way," says Peter. Maybe not, but the station is off to a good start. The Hunns sold enough advertising in one year -- at $1.25 for 20 seconds -- to put WHRC in the black. They used the profits to replace much of their used equipment, and had enough left over to set up another station, which they have applied for in the Lake Placid area.
The FCC figures that plenty of others will be following in the Hunns' path now that the airwaves are opening up. "We're now working out procedures for handling the flood of applications that we expect to come in," says the FCC's Martin Blumenthal. "The commission must establish the rule-making for new channels first, and that will take six months to a year for the 500 new stations. We'll probably begin accepting applications for them in September or October."
Blumenthal says that the basic requirements for owning a station are character requirements. Otherwise it is much like the Presidency -- anyone qualifies.