Thursday, April 28, 2005


Can't get the word out? Right-wing radio beats Left to the punch

Liberals so often wring their hands as they watch right-wingers romp about the countryside acquiring every public good in sight and say "But how can they do it? Where did we go wrong?" Well, the short answer is illegality, chutzpah and plenty of financing. But the trick is in the understanding of the word "illegality."

You see, American liberals, being the good law-abiding citizens that they are (they resemble nothing so much as Canadians), decide for themselves—i.e., outside a courtroom—what is legal and what is not, always erring on the side of goodness and light. If you suggest to them that they might adopt the methods of the Right, which is to take advantage of every loophole, every nook and cranny in the law, you will evince a perfect little shudder before they explain to you that they don't want to be like them. Hence they always operate with one hand tied behind their back.

The Right has a different understanding of the Rule of Law. The Right understands that an act is not actually illegal until (a) you are successfully sued and have lost all your appeals, or (b) you have been successfully prosecuted and have lost all your appeals. And even then, there is always the possibility, while your appeals are pending, that you can get the appropriate legislative body or rule-setting authority to change the law to your convenience. This is known as "retrofitting."

When you view it in that light you will realize that there is very little you can't get away with—if you only had the chutzpah and the cash. The risk-to-reward ratio is very low, and the bigger the swindle, the less likely you'll ever do time.

This came to mind as I was reading Paul Davidson's "Christian radio plan doubted after permits sold for over $800,000" in USA Today. According to Davidson,

Clark Parrish says he's trying to spread the gospel. His critics say he's breaking the law to turn a quick buck.

The conflict has become one of the oddest imbroglios the Federal Communications Commission has faced in recent years.

Since 2003, Parrish, a radio engineer, and two partners have received FCC permits to build an eye-popping 1,026 “translator” radio stations nationwide. A translator rebroadcasts the signal of a full-power station to reach communities outside the station's normal service area.

But a coalition of religious and public-interest groups contends that Parrish's companies are illegally exploiting licenses by selling them almost as quickly as they acquire them. Though Parrish's companies got the permits free, they've sold or given away about 85 of them to other broadcasters, both religious and secular, for more than $800,000. And they've signaled plans to unload hundreds of other stations.

Notice that $800,000 is a drop in the bucket. But aside from assuring a comfortable lifestyle for the principals, it leaves just enough for some significant political donations and at least an initial representation before the FCC while you're acquiring more cash.

Critics are crying foul, and the FCC is investigating the claims against Parrish.

“This was nothing but a scheme to traffic in commission licenses,” says Harold Feld of the Media Access Project, which is representing the coalition before the FCC. “To let people come in under false cover, get a valuable federal asset and resell it for a tidy profit is just wrong.”

Wrong! I tell you. Well, to paraphrase an old Tina Turner song—"What's wrong got to do with it?" The question is—Is it legal? And it's likely to be years before we ever find out.

In the meanwhile, right-wing Christian radio will be spreading like pink eye, and Clark Parrish and associates will have plenty of time and money to reconcile with the FCC. Who knows? They may even have to pay a fine somewhere down the road, but that's by no means guaranteed. More likely the FCC will accept the argument that Parrish was simply making sound business decisions and admonish him not to overdo it.

The saga began in March 2003. That's when the FCC opened a one-week window for companies to apply for translator licenses. Parrish and his two partners, operating three companies in Twin Falls, Idaho, sought about 4,000 translators — 30% of the total applications.

They ended up withdrawing applications that would have forced them to bid against other broadcasters. But Parrish and his partners wound up with 1,026 permits that no one else wanted and that they could get for free. Then they started peddling some of them. One church, Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale, paid the Idaho group $314,000 for 22 translator licenses to extend its Christian station in Okeechobee around the state. Carl Mims, who runs that station, says the purchase saved him the trouble of applying for licenses he might not have gotten.

The rules on translator stations are unclear. An FCC requirement that a broadcaster must operate a station for some period before selling it was lifted in the early 1980s. But Feld says the law still bars “trafficking” in permits. Applicants must “genuinely intend to provide service,” Feld contends.

So it all comes down to intention, doesn't it? If Parrish et al. haven't been too loose with their tongues and with their memos, that's a hard nut to crack.

The FCC's investigation may look into whether Parrish's group was selling many of his station permits just for profit. Parrish argues that the 85 sales make up “just a little tiny fraction” of his companies' total permits. “You kind of adjust your plans as you go along,” he says. He adds that his companies also gave away permits, traded some and acquired others.

Feld says that argument is belied by the group's aggressive sales tactics. At a religious broadcasters' convention in February, a newsletter said Parrish's companies were “making available for acquisition hundreds of these FM translator station construction permits” to Christian broadcasters.

There's also debate about how much, if any, profit Parrish earned. He says the companies spent “millions” in legal and engineering fees to file the 4,000 applications, though he wouldn't be specific. Feld contends the figure is likely far lower.

And while they're holding all those free public licenses that they don't know what to do with, they've made at least one good cover-your-ass move—

Parrish insists his group plans to launch most of the stations itself. One broadcaster, the American Family Association, confirmed that it has agreed to let Parrish's companies retransmit all 180 of its Christian stations. “I'm confident he has intentions to build a network,” says AFA general counsel Patrick Vaughn.

Gee. If anyone from the Left had gone for those licenses, Parrish might not even have acquired them in the first place. After all, he only went after the licenses where he didn't have to bid.

Those very licenses could have been used to extend the range of Pacifica radio, small local lefty broadcasters and maybe even give the mainstream Christian churches a voice on the air—oh, and make some money besides. But that would have been illegal, wouldn't it?

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