Sunup-to-sundown radio stations seek longer broadcast day

When the sun comes up, KWOA Radio -- "the Voice of Agriculture" in Worthington, Minn. -- begins its broadcast day. For roughly the next two hours -- or until 8 o'clock -- the station is authorized to use a mere 148 watts of power. After 8, however, there is a major transformation. It then reaches out with 1,000 watts, giving listeners for miles around a steady flow of local news, weather conditions, farming information, and market reports -- common stock as well as livestock. The format seems to work; KWOA has been on the air in rural southern Minnesota for nearly 36 years.

But like 2,300 other AM radio stations from Maine to California, KWOA must signoff at sunset, abandoning the dial to larger and more powerful stations in distant cities like Minneapolis or Des Moines, Iowa.

Some of these are the clear-channel type, whose signals travel hundreds of miles and dominate the nighttime airwaves, even though much of the news and information they broadcast is oriented toward their home cities.

This is a sore point with the Daytime Broadcasters Association, which represents stations like KWOA and is pushing the federal government to be allowed longer operating hours. Specifically, the group wants permission to stay on the air for four additional hours a day, especially in the winter months when sunset comes early.

James Wychor, general manager of the Worthington station and president of the Daytime Broadcasters Association, says these stations represent a majority of the 4,500 licensed AM facilities in the United States.

Yet, he goes on: "Our calculations are that there are 46 million Americans with no local nighttime radio service."

Some 600 US communities have only local daytime AM service, Mr Wychor says.

The FCC began restricting some stations to daytime hours in the 1940s, when radio experienced explosive growth.

The daytime broadcasters point to the results of a survey they commissioned to back up the argument for longer hours.

The poll, conducted last month in two small and widely separated Tennessee towns, found that an overwhelming majority of respondents do not listen at night to the dominant AM station in their area: WSM in Nashville. Listeners said they preferred various FM all-music stations to the clearchannel giants as long as their local AM stations had to go off the air at sunset.

The "daytimers have influential support for their cause. The National Association of Broadcasters, says media relations director Rory Wilcox, "favors extended hours as long as this doesn't interfere with existing service.

"In rural areas, oftentimes, there's not much of a selection," Ms. Wilcox continues. "And if a station chooses to run the local weather report or crop prices and has to be off the air at sunset, obviously the listeners lose something."

Even in urban areas daytimer fans often lose out. If sunset comes at or before "drive time," when commuters are heading home from work, their favorite stations may already be off their air.

The daytimer group hs been lobbying for support of a bill introduced by US Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota that would compel the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to grant the extended hours.

"Anyone can see the reasonableness of it," says Mr. Weber's administrative assistant, Len Swinehart. "When 4 o'clock comes in the winter, you're off the air."

Yet, he maintains, it is during the off-air hours that listeners -- especially in rural areas -- need to know what local weather and road conditions are, as well as whether schools will be open.

In fact, the Weber bill may not be necessary even if it passes both houses of Congress. The FCC already is proposing a rules change to enable the stations to broadcast longer.

Assistant FCC policy and rules division chief Wilson LaFollette says the agency is giving the proposed change "expedited treatment," and a ruling ought to be made by July or August -- in time for next winter.

But Mr. LaFollette cautions that the US first needs to conclude an agreement with Canada to protect stations in the latter country from having their frequencies interfered with by those on the US side of the border. A similar agreement exists with Mexico.

Not everyone thinks extended hours would be a good idea. Russ Eagan, the attorney for the Clear Channel Broadcasting Service, the trade organization for the powerful nighttime stations, says his group has formally notified the FCC of its opposition.

"Not that it's going to drive us to the poorhouse," Mr. Eagan says. "But it would deprive at least 26 million people of their access to our service."

If the daytimers win extra hours, Eagan argues, it will be at the expense of each other in some areas where there is little separation of frequencies.

Still, says Mr. Wychor: "We think the matter of democracy on the dial is in our favor. The time has come."

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