A one-man radio station's fight to stay on the air
Gloucester, Mass. — The ''concert hall'' of Cape Ann may be nearing the end of its program.
The hall isn't an impressive, gilt-edged building. It's the basement studio from which Simon Geller broadcasts classical music on his one-man FM radio station here in this rugged coastal town.
The Federal Communications Commission has not renewed Mr. Geller's license - the first time the FCC has denied a renewal in the absence of criminal conduct. There are almost 8,000 commercial AM and FM radio stations in the United States. An FCC spokesman says the agency denies applications for license renewals only about two or three times a year.
The Geller case comes at a time when the FCC is redefining its role. FCC chairman Mark Fowler is quoted in a recent interview as saying, ''This agency should be nothing more than a technical traffic cop.'' He added that broadcasters build up ''sweat equity'' in their stations and ''to say that this investment can be taken away by the fiat of this agency is terribly unfair and . . . not in the public interest.''
But the decision not to renew Geller's license may indicate that the FCC is still willing to flex its regulatory muscle over the question of program content.
Geller and his listeners say he has put in the sweat to maintain a radio station that fulfills their needs. Geller, whose downtown basement studio doubles as his home, has operated WVCA since 1964. Between signing on at 10 a.m. (11:00 on Sundays) and signing off near midnight, Geller plays from 37 tapes, each having 12 hours and 40 minutes of classical music.
In keeping with his desire to convey a concert hall mood, and because he works alone, Geller's programs are rarely - too rarely, according to his critics - interrupted. There are no news breaks, hardly any ads, few public service announcements, and, lately, pleas from Geller for help in appealing the FCC vote. ''A lot of money, more than you can dream of, is needed to fight this case. . . ,'' he tells listeners. The 3,000-watt WVCA-FM operates on the only frequency available on Cape Ann, an area within listening range of many Boston radio stations.
Since January 1981 the FCC has not required stations to conduct surveys to determine community needs or set aside a minimum time for broadcasting non-entertainment programs such as public service announcements or public affairs programs. Still, sources on both sides of the dispute and at the FCC say Geller's attention to these areas was judged insufficient. The commission's ruling overturns an FCC administrative law judge's finding for Geller in 1978.
The commissioners, by a 4-to-2 vote, awarded the frequency to Grandbanke Corporation, a firm formed in anticipation of aquiring Geller's license.
Steve Harris of the FCC's general counsel says one weakness in Geller's renewal application was his sampling of community opinion.
Geller says his rate of less than 1 percent of non-entertainment programming, criticized by the commissioners last month as inadequate, was sufficient for his license renewal in 1972. Before deregulation, the FCC recommended that FM stations set aside at least 6 percent of their broadcast time for non-entertainment programming.
Geller, who represented himself during the FCC proceedings, says his recent mail proves that his stream of music and lack of chatter suits listeners from Maine to New York, some of whom spend weekends or vacations on Cape Ann. One fan printed a notice to rally others and posted it on WVCA's wooden door and around town. A Boston attorney wrote of his support and offered his services free of charge. Some letters contain donations or offers to testify in Washington.
Critics say the decision flouts the Reagan administration's call for local support of the arts and a lighter federal regulatory hand. Since the FCC's decision, Geller's supporters have sent a ''phenomenal'' amount of mail to Sen. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, according to one of his aides. A flood of letters has also been sent to FCC chairman Fowler.
Geller, who says that until last year his income was below the poverty level - $3,855 for a single male - says he intends to fight to keep his one-man station. He has 50 days to appeal the commission's decision after it is published.