For now, 1,000-watt station will remain analog

HARPSWELL — Harpswell Community TV has been known to be dogged in its pursuit of public access, so much so that the station spent 12 years trying to ensure that its broadcasts would be seen by more than just cable TV subscribers.

Last week the station’s determination paid off when the Federal Communications Commission granted it a low-power broadcast license at a time when major television stations are being forced to switch to digital signals.

“This gives people the ability to watch their community in action and not have to purchase cable,” program manager Donna Frisoli said. “The best way to watch us is on cable, but people can still watch the station with their rabbit ears.”

So far, low-power stations like Harpswell’s have been exempt from the digital conversion. Frisoli said the conversion would likely cost Harpswell Community TV $100,000, nearly triple the station’s $35,000 operating budget.

But for now that conversion appears a long ways off. Harpswell Community TV’s new license is for six years, which means analog viewers can continue to look forward to programs like “Soap Box,” a segment that allows anyone to say just about anything. That includes pointed critiques of elected and town officials, or one-sided diatribes on divisive topics like a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal.

Frisoli said “Soap Box” isn’t the most used – or the most popular – program, but she keeps it because it honors the true meaning of public access.

“It can be dangerous because people can dump on the selectmen,” Frisoli said. “Some communities think it’s a scary thing, but we sort of see it like the editorial page in the newspaper.”

Such strict adherence to free speech principles has in the past agitated various selectmen and residents. But that hasn’t stopped Harpswell Community TV from fighting to broaden its audience – or kept residents from helping it.

In 1996 residents supported the station’s effort to apply for a low-power broadcast license. The license would have allowed HCTV to broadcast a 1,000-watt signal from its tower off Mountain Road. The analog signal would have allowed non-cable subscribers to access its content, which includes public access shows like “Soap Box,” as well as meetings of the Board of Selectmen, the School Administrative District 75 Board of Directors and Town Meeting.

At the time, Frisoli said the station pursued the license because so few residents had cable television. For those interested in watching public hearings or town meetings, there was no option other than actually attending the meetings.

The FCC initially dismissed Harpswell’s application, but said it would grant a special temporary permit if the station could prove its worth to the community.

Residents responded with a flood of letters. Former Gov. Angus King, a Brunswick resident, also endorsed the effort.

“It’s really unheard of (to generate that kind of support),” Frisoli said. “We were very lucky.”

The FCC required the station to renew its temporary broadcast license every six months, which it did, for the next three years. 

In 2000 another window opened that allowed the station to apply for a longer-term license. The station applied for another waiver, then waited another seven years before getting a construction waiver in 2007.

The permit allowed Harpswell TV to build the broadcast tower off
Mountain Road. The land for the tower, Frisoli said, was donated by a
man who lived there.

Harpswell TV’s citizen outreach was reciprocated in other ways, too. The station itself was built almost entirely by volunteers. 

The process to obtain the license was long, Frisoli said, but worth it.

“I think people have to come to realize how important this is to their community,” she said. “This offers people the opportunity to watch their government in action.”

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or [email protected].

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