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Classical music radio delay is as much about bureaucracy as technology

For weeks, Tampa public radio broadcaster WUSF-FM 89.7 has aired messages assuring listeners that its new sister station, the area's only 24-hour broadcast home for classical music, is just a few technology adjustments away from its full-power debut — more than four months after originally planned.

But the delays in bringing WSMR-FM 89.1 up to full power are as much about bureaucracy as technology, with significant postponements blamed on a lack of communication between the Coast Guard and WUSF over interference with the agency's Rescue 21 emergency broadcast system.

The problem first surfaced, according to WUSF, one day before a long-scheduled Sept. 15 debut for Sarasota-based WSMR, which was expected to take over classic music programming for Tampa's public broadcaster.

The shift was part of a massive switch filling WUSF with news and information shows during the day and jazz at night. To keep classical music fans happy, WUSF Public Media planned to buy onetime Christian music station WSMR for $1.2 million and move its longtime classical music shows there.

Two problems surfaced: The station's antenna wouldn't fit in the space provided on its new broadcast tower, and the full-power signal interfered with the communications system used by the Coast Guard in rescue emergencies.

WUSF general manager JoAnn Urofsky called for a delay in WSMR's debut, thinking the technical issues could be resolved quickly. Four months later, she's still struggling to get answers from engineers hired by the Coast Guard on how to shield their systems from WSMR's full-power signal after spending $150,000 on a new antenna.

"This project has not been a priority, except for the people who have been working on WUSF's behalf and our listeners," said Urofsky, who months ago declined to name the Coast Guard as the agency affected by the interference, in hopes of preserving good relations with the agency. "There's no reason to wait on this, other than the fact that it's nobody priority but (ours)."

Every problem solved for WSMR seemed to uncover new difficulties. Moving the antenna required federal approval; the new location interfered with the Coast Guard's broadcasts; closing the station's sale in October allowed WSMR to broadcast at 30 percent power, but building a new antenna took time. Now, WSMR's low-power signal fades outside the Sarasota area, leaving much of Tampa Bay unserved.

According to an e-mail from a Coast Guard spokesman, the agency was first notified of the antenna move on Sept. 20, six days after WSMR's debut was delayed. Seventeen days later, on Oct. 7, the Coast Guard e-mailed concerns about interference issues to Clear Channel, the owner of the tower where WSMR's antenna is located.

WUSF eventually tested its new antenna Jan. 4. The two sides exchanged e-mails about the results over the next two days, but then engineers representing the Coast Guard took another 18 days to answer a request for more information. On Jan. 24, amid repeated inquiries from the St. Petersburg Times, the Coast Guard responded.

"Bottom line; we are trying to make sure that our lifesaving capabilities are not affected," wrote Carlos Diaz, a Washington D.C.-based spokesman for the agency, in an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times. He could not say specifically why some communications with WUSF took so long.

WUSF's Urofsky said the agency's Jan. 24 response, suggesting a range of solutions, also raised more questions — including exactly what equipment will be needed and who will absorb the cost, estimated at up to $25,000.

"The Coast Guard is huge and we don't want to get in the way of a life being saved," she said. "But I'm still not sure why this stalemate happened."

And there was the bureaucracy. Before WSMR's sale closed Oct. 22, original owners Northwestern Media — a chain of Christian radio stations owned by Northwestern College in Minnesota — had to coordinate efforts with Clear Channel, WUSF, the Coast Guard's representatives and the Federal Communications Commission.

Northwestern Media and WUSF also differed on possible solutions. The Minnesota group wanted cheaper filtering technology, but WUSF decided to build a new antenna, striking a deal to subtract the $150,000 cost from WSMR's purchase price.

"Nontechnical people, when they don't know about something, have a need to place blame," said Scott Jones, business manager for Northwestern Media, who admitted choosing his words carefully over fear of sparking litigation. "One day we thought we had it nailed, the next day we didn't."

Now Clear Channel is working directly with the Coast Guard's representatives to implement a solution to the interference issue, Urofsky said. With her own crews scheduled to work on the antenna this week, she's still hopeful area classical music fans will get their radio fix soon.

"You can't be in this business without being an optimist," she said. "We have to believe it's going to happen."

Classical music radio delay is as much about bureaucracy as technology 01/30/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 31, 2011 7:47am]
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