Tuesday, March 29, 2016


Thirty years ago I was completing my Masters of Mass Communication degree at Arizona State University while I was GM of KCSU, Fort Collins, Colorado. While doing some housecleaning this past weekend I found my Master’s thesis from 1986. As I read through it, I was amazed at how little things have changed, particularly the policies of the FCC.

I was the seventh person to recieve a Master’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. The graduate program was just beginning at the time.  Now The Cronkite School is in a big new building in downtown Phoenix. Back then it was more humble – the third floor of Stauffer Hall on the campus in Tempe.

I met Uncle Walter once back then.  He was covered in sweat from head-to-toe from playing tennis.  The most trusted man in America didn’t smell so great that day.

The Cronkite School was a terrific place for me because there were few rules and requirements.  The Master’s program required a thesis comprised of original, first-hand research.  I decided to study and write about “the channel six problem” because I had a perfect research situation at KCSU, located on the Front Range of Colorado. The “channel six problem” was something I dealt with often while was at KCSU.

For those folks who aren’t familiar with “the channel six problem” I will give a very, very brief description: After World War 2 the FCC purposely located the new FM dial right next to channel six television frequency. This meant that wherever channel six TV was on the air, FM stations within the TV coverage area dealt constantly with complaints from TV viewers experiencing interference. The interference was the worst from stations in the noncommercial part of dial – 88.1 – 91.9.

The day I decided on “the channel six problem” for my thesis I had been climbing into an asbestos-filled attic to install a small device to filter out KCSU’s interference with KRMA-TV, channel six from Denver.

Colorado’s Front Range was the perfect place to assess the problem.  In addition to KRMA-TV, there were more than two-dozen noncom FM stations from Fort Collins on the north, to Pueblo on the south, to Aspen in the west and nothing to the east.

During my investigation, I learned about much more than “the channel six problem.” It is a story of corporate collusion, bureaucratic neglect and even a suicide. Here is the story from my thesis:


 Many people today don’t know that FM radio was alive and doing very well in the late 1930s and early 1940s. FM stations at the time were between 42 mHz and 50 mHz, often with power that exceeded 100,000 watts.  FM receivers (example on the left) were sold in the trendiest shops in New York.  It was hip to listen to FM because the audio quality was so much better than AM.
Photo: Scott Fybush

In 1938 Major Edwin Howard Armstrong built a massive tower (still sanding today) at Alpine, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan. (photo on the right) His FM station – W2XMN – covered an area larger than the New York metro, providing static-free reception to portions of five states.

If you want to read more about early FM and the Alpine tower check out Scott Fybush’s fine work at {link]

Armstrong offered to build FM stations for RCA who said “no” and stole Armstrong’s ideas.   

The story from my thesis continues:


1 comment:

  1. The flip side to the TV6/FM "problem" is that in TV6 markets you often ended up with several very small FM stations in the non-commercial band. That's because of the quirk in the FCC's interference rules, where you can have an FM station that "interferes" with the TV6, but only if the interfering signal contour covers 2000 population or less (determined by the US Census). This was often achievable, but only because the signals were transmitting from college campuses (which generally don't have population as far as the Census is concerned) and were very, very small in terms of power.

    The end result is a whole bunch stations that cover the college campus and not a whole lot more than that. They're not economically viable without a lot of subsides from their parent school. And with such tiny signals (usually 500 watts or less, and from low heights) it's exceedingly difficult to attract an audience, regardless of the content being broadcast.

    You can see this on full display in the Providence market, for example. Just in and immediately adjacent to the tiny little state of Rhode Island, we have: WELH 88.1, WKIV 88.1, WGAO 88.3, WQRI 88.3, WJMF 88.7, WRIU 90.3, WJHD 90.7, WCNI 90.9, WXEV 91.1, WTKL 91.1, WDOM 91.3, WCVY 91.5 and there's a CP for a new station on 91.5 in the NW corner of RI, too. And that doesn't count the bigger signals from out of state that can also be heard here: WGBH 89.7, WUMD 89.3, WHUS 91.7, WPKT 89.1 and WBUR 90.9.

    Of the "in state" signals, only WJMF, WELH and WRIU have any real "heft" to their signals, and none of them are all that big (they're all mid-sized Class A FM's around the equivalent of 3000 watts). Both WJMF and WELH immediately rushed to expand their signals after the local TV6 (WLNE) changed frequency as part of the DTV migration in 2009. The rest are mostly 100 to 500 watts and are functionally little different from the LPFM Class of license.

    And unfortunately now all these little signals are all packed in so tightly that none of them can really expand. The entire non-commercial band is a mishmosh of overlapping signals, by and large, throughout the state. :(