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Tuning Out 

Charlotte's WNCW signal could soon be drowned out by Albemarle station

Charlotte is perhaps the nation's largest urban market without a true alternative radio station. The existing college stations in the area have co-opted for smooth jazz, pop classical, news, talk, and generic eclecticism.

The only exception to this near homogenous quasi-muzak has been WNCW, whose home base is the tiny burg of Spindale, NC. Their radio signal, however, cannot penetrate Mecklenburg County. Around 10 years ago, an Alternative Radio Coalition sprang up in Charlotte and tried starting an alternative station. Eventually, the group induced WNCW's cooperation in setting up a secondary transmitter, called a translator, to beam the station's broadcast into Charlotte at a more listenable frequency. So instead of listening at the left end of the dial, Charlotte listeners tune in to WNCW near the middle at 100.7 and get a fairly weak but listenable frequency which broadcasts a variety of adult folk, rock and country, sometimes referred to as Americana or Triple A (AAA). The station, which already dominates the airwaves in the western part of the state, also has a substantial following among music lovers in Charlotte.

That could soon be over, however. WNCW's signal will possibly be disrupted, drowned out or at the very least disturbed by a new station requesting a frequency reallocation very nearby on the FM band. The station, WABZ in Albemarle, began rumbling in 1998 for change in its frequency allotment. Since being taken over by behemoth radio conglomerate Susquehanna Radio Corporation, the station has requested a frequency reallocation at 100.9, just beside WNCW's spot at 100.7.

This situation leaves WNCW listeners, including Bill Clay, very concerned.

First of all, a secondary outlet like WNCW doesn't have the right, in the FCC's eyes, to prevent a takeover of an adjacent radio band. According to Clay, here's why: "Under the (FCC) technical rules defining 'adjacent channel interference,' WNCW's Charlotte translator interferes with the proposed commercial station by definition. In addition, under FCC rules, FM translators are a 'secondary service' and can be forced off the air if they interfere with full-power stations."

The fact is, WABZ and its corporate parent presented their case to the FCC and, with few arguments to the contrary -- it was presented as a change in Indian Trail, so it never broke into the Charlotte radar -- has already steamrolled its way through the FCC and onto the Charlotte radio dial. Consider this: WNCW's puny translator broadcasts at 38 watts, while the requested new station for WABZ, broadcasting at adjacent 100.9 MHz, will broadcast at 6,000 watts from a tower 5-1/2 miles from the WNCW translator. If you've ever tried finding a tiny radio station signal next to a large one on the radio dial, you'll understand the problem. Even with a digital tuner, tuning in small powered stations this close would be difficult. To add insult to injury, WNCW didn't even know this was happening until Bill Clay alerted them a short time ago.

So how does Clay know this when WNCW station manager David Gordon, busy solving his own problems, didn't?

"I went to the WNCW Community Advisory Board meeting at CPCC on March 11 (2002)," explains Clay. "The perennial topic arose: 'Can't you guys get a stronger signal in Charlotte?' Station manager Gordon said they have numerous problems at their primary transmitter site (in Spindale) and they have to focus their resources there first. I asked, 'OK, but could you empower a group of us in Charlotte to investigate possible alternative transmitter sites?' Gordon replied, 'Go for it,' and a couple of folks volunteered to help.

"After the meeting, Joe Cline (deejay, musician and founder of the translator in Charlotte) gave me the heads-up that there were many constraints and that what they (WNCW) now have may be as good as it gets. So I decided to inform myself and started reading FCC rules about frequency spacing. I ran a query to find all stations on the seven FM channels 100.1 through 101.3 within 200 kilometers of WNCW's translator and bang, out popped WABZ's application for a construction permit: 6KW, at 100.9, and only a few miles away! I ran for the alarm bell."

While Clay says he's over 99 percent certain that the Charlotte translator is in dire straits, WNCW's Gordon has a slightly toned down approach. He basically says he just doesn't know, which is hardly reassuring.

"There could be an acceptable level of interference, or we could be forced off the air," says Gordon. "Yes, we are very concerned."

As to whether listeners can and should take action, Gordon says, "That's certainly their right. But whether they can affect any decisions remains to be seen. Yes, we're concerned and we appreciate our listeners taking action. Anything that would interfere with our signal is a concern."

Actions being taken by the station don't offer much confidence in the future. "I'm working with an engineer right now," states Gordon. "We'll know the results soon. Until then, we just don't know. If we have to go off the air, we'll look to see if there's another spot on the dial. But we don't even know if there's space. That's one of the issues we're going to have to study." As to issues of timing, "That's in the FCC's hands. They do things when they're good and ready."

In fairness to Gordon, he's only been manager for a year and has been consumed by numerous problems. Obviously, a public supported station reaching listeners from Charlotte all the way west, through a variety of translators, to Knoxville, TN, has its hands full with a myriad of issues ranging from fundraising to storms toppling transmission towers.

But Susquehanna Radio Corporation isn't a small, fly-by-night operation that can be ignored. It's one of the 10 largest radio group broadcasters in the US, with its first station founded in 1942. It owns and operates 23 AM and FM radio stations in locations like Dallas, Houston, San Francisco, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and mighty Albemarle, NC. Susquehanna's core business is radio broadcasting, but according to a press release, it "has created a variety of services for listeners and clients. . . developing such programs as interactive phone systems, event marketing, lifestyle publications, CD projects, site promotions and many other targeted marketing and promotional vehicles." Efforts to reach SRC's management were unsuccessful and phone calls were not returned. But as SRC senior vice president Dan Halyburton explains in a quote from Radio World Online, "Our job is to obviously maximize the brand and maximize the revenues."

Here's what's been written on the web about WABZ in Albemarle: "On the air since 1958 with either AC or Top-40 until the late 80s, Southern Gospel became the norm around 1989-90. Susquehanna currently owns the station and has intentions of moving the signal closer to the Charlotte area sometime in 2002." Efforts to reach anyone at WABZ were similarly unsuccessful.

Apparently, the future for Charlotte's WNCW translator is bleak. "I hope the engineering report comes back saying I'm wrong about WNCW having to shut down the translator," states Clay, "but the way I read the FCC rules, it's an open and shut case. Even if they don't go off the air, this will surely reduce their coverage area, which in itself isn't so great."

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