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Official sees county-run FM station as valuable

When Frances struck Hernando County three weeks ago, the storm left Linda Sislik without electricity for four frustrating days.

The River Country resident and her neighbors were isolated. They did not know what efforts the county was taking to assist them. They did not know where to find ice or water.

"It was rough," Sislik said. "We sort of felt a little desperate."

Sislik's experience and that of others who shared her predicament has prompted County Commissioner Diane Rowden to propose creating a government broadcast radio station, an idea that perhaps has more urgent appeal now that Hurricane Jeanne has caused major outages yet again just weeks after Frances.

The idea _ and right now it is nothing more than that _ is to get a license for a low-power FM station from the Federal Communications Commission. The agency grants such licenses to local governments for public interest broadcasts.

Rowden said that during emergencies like Frances or Jeanne, when power has been knocked out, the county would be able to get critical information to residents who could listen to battery-powered radios.

At other times, the station would transmit the audio portion of Channel 19, Hernando's public information television broadcast that appears on the Bright House Network.

Citrus County, which had major headaches getting information to its residents after Frances, is considering going after the same kind of FCC license.

"Our responsibility as county commissioners is to protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens," Rowden said. "And I feel this is just one other way that we can do that."

County video production manager Rick Foti said commissioners had directed him to explore how much it would cost to start such a station. Foti said local radio engineers put the figure at $75,000 to $100,000.

Foti said the county could probably get the radio station up and running for less, but he was still looking to come up with a concrete price tag. State grants might be available to pay part of the cost, he said.

His current staff is likely adequate to merely broadcast the audio of Channel 19, Foti said, but he would need additional workers if radio specific programming, such as a call-in show, were created.

While the FCC would not allow commercial advertising on the station as a way to sustain it, Foti said he thinks companies could pay a sponsorship fee for certain programs, as they do now on Channel 19.

Brooksville radio station WWJB-AM 1450 was given high marks by many in the county for the job it did getting information out during Frances, a task it is performing once more in the wake of Jeanne.

But residents in coastal and eastern parts of Hernando sometimes find it difficult to get the station's signal. And, like many AM stations, getting a signal after sundown can be all but impossible.

Station president and general manager Steve Manuel said WWJB had no position on whether Rowden's idea should be pursued.

"From our standpoint," Manuel said, "WWJB has been here since 1957, and we want to serve the community as best we can. That will continue regardless."

Though the station welcomes the opportunity to be of service during emergencies, Manuel said the burden Frances placed on WWJB was significant and that the county should have the ability to partner with as many communication outlets as possible during disasters.

County Commissioner Tom Mylander is skeptical. Although some residents have said they would enjoy listening to radio broadcasts of commission meetings while driving or doing the dishes, Mylander wonders how many people would actually tune in during nonemergency periods.

Mylander cautioned that what at first sounds worthwhile and modest can soon become complex and inflated, particularly when it comes to government initiatives.

"As a taxpayer, knowing how government costs increase," Mylander said, "I would really have to look and see what continued expenses are involved."

Rowden said she also is sensitive to price and is unwilling to rush into a project that may ultimately prove to be of little value. If Foti's cost estimates are reasonable and further study suggests the station would be beneficial, Rowden said perhaps it could be on the air by the next hurricane season.

For Sislik, that would be a relief.

"If it is at all reasonable," she said, "I think it would be a great benefit for everybody throughout the county. I certainly don't want to go through another hurricane like Frances again without the benefit of such a service."

Will Van Sant can be reached at (352) 754-6127 or vansantsptimes.com.

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