A co-founder of WPVC 94.7FM is concerned a recent Federal Communications Commission complaint filed against five nonprofit stations by Saga Communications could silence local voices of color on the radio.
Earlier this month, Saga subsidiary Tidewater Communications LLC filed on the company’s behalf a 78-page Consolidated Petition to Deny, alleging five local low-power FM stations are operating illegally and asking for their license renewals to be denied.
WPVC, along with Charlottesville LPFM stations WXRK, WVAI and WREN and Ruckersville station WKMZ are all named in the complaint.
Saga Communications owns local stations WINA, WWWV and WCNR.
Jeff Lenert, who helped to co-found the progressive station WPVC about four years ago, said he is not concerned about losing his license. Along with three of the other stations, WPVC operates out of the same space in Albemarle County, which is among the issues alleged in the complaint.
The stations function under an operation agreement as a cluster, which violates FCC regulations for LPFM stations, the complaint argues.
Though they share a building, Lenert said the stations all operate separately, having only limited and largely incidental contact with each other. Additionally, he said he is unconcerned about that aspect of the complaint as, under guidance from an FCC lawyer, they applied for their licenses jointly.
“I don’t think this complaint will go very far, but I’m not sure that’s the intention,” he said. “I think Saga sees us as a threat for whatever reason and they’re trying to make us spend a bunch of money to defend ourselves.”
FCC law is a small field, Lenert said, and FCC lawyers who practice law relating to LPFMs are particularly niche and thus more expensive.
Lenert said he believes the complaint is largely unenforceable and took issue with claims that his station has not met its goal of serving the community in part because it airs national programs such as “Democracy Now.”
According to Lenert, WPVC is a rare progressive voice in a mainstream radio landscape and also the only Spanish-language outlet in the area, airing about 21 hours of such content per week.
“No other station provides any content in Spanish and often have on an immigration attorney who takes calls, pro bono, from members of our community who wouldn’t have access to those services otherwise,” he said.
A significant portion of Saga’s complaint focuses on what is described as the airing of commercial advertising.
Per FCC regulations, LPFMs are not allowed to advertise, which is defined as material broadcast in exchange for any remuneration intended to promote any service, facility, or product of for-profit entities.
Instead, LPFMs are allowed to employ underwriting, in which businesses and others contribute financially to stations. Per regulations, LPFMs can acknowledge contributors on-air, but only for identification purposes and not promotion.
Underwriting is governed by fairly narrow regulations, the complaint alleges, and prohibits “calls to action” and qualitative language, among other things.
Lenert said he is more worried about another trend since the complaint was filed. Several contributors have called with concerns that their support of WPVC could be perceived as backing the removal of two Confederate statues in downtown Charlottesville.
The statues were the focal point of a recent lawsuit against votes by the Charlottesville City Council to remove statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
The plaintiffs largely won the lawsuit earlier this month, getting a permanent injunction that prevents the removal of the statues and an acknowledgment that the council violated a state statute that forbids the removal of war monuments.
To his knowledge, Lenert said the station has never taken a stance on the statues, though it certainly has allowed “quite a few” people to air their views on their removal.
The contributors he’s received calls from have expressed concerns based on calls they themselves have received, Lenert said.
“Given all the controversy the statues caused, not the least of which being the Unite the Right rally, there has been some pressure put on these contributors,” he said.
Though Lenert clarified that he does not think that Saga and those putting pressure on WPVC’s underwriters are working in conjunction, he does believe their goals are the same: to bankrupt the local LPFMs.
“My biggest concern is that if they succeed, then there won’t be any progressive voices of color in local radio; it’ll just be conservative talk shows,” he said.
Saga Communications did not respond to requests for comment.