ASPEN - With more radio stations seeking space on Pitkin County's translator system than its capacity allows, the county will retool the criteria it uses to evaluate applicants and overhaul the board that oversees the system.
The moves come as a county operation that once labored in relative obscurity becomes a focal point for broadcasters looking for an edge in reaching local audiences. Access to the tax-supported translator system is limited, but interest in using it has grown. The mountaintop translators transmit broadcast signals into the nooks and crannies of the county and beyond, providing radio and television reception that otherwise would be blocked by the mountainous terrain.
It is the key to television service for rural residents without cable or satellite TV and allows radio broadcasters to extend their reach. It's often what makes listing to a radio station in a moving vehicle possible.
Capacity on the system remains for TV stations, but its FM radio capabilities are maxed out. There are 11 radio stations on the system currently, and eight that want one or more new or additional spots on one or more of the 11 radio translators sites that extend from Sunlight Peak outside Glenwood Springs to Aspen Mountain, according to Jodi Smith, county facilities manager.
"This is a very hot market, and radio stations want to be here," said Phylis Mattice, assistant county manager.
A year ago, the county initiated a written policy for evaluating stations that want space in the system. The plan was to drop two Grand Junction radio stations to create space for local stations, but there wasn't space for all of the stations that stepped up to fill the openings. Meanwhile, two of the five Translator Advisory Board members involved in the review of applicants had to recuse themselves because of their connection to particular radio stations, commissioners were told.
County commissioners agreed Tuesday that the Translator Advisory Board, composed of appointed residents, should be boosted from five members to seven and that none of its members can be employed by the broadcast industry, though volunteers with nonprofit stations can participate. That means three existing board members will come off the panel and five new members need to be appointed.
Commissioner Michael Owsley argued that station employees have a conflict of interest that should prevent their participation even if the station they work for is not an applicant for space on the system. They are deciding the fate of other, competing stations, he said.
"I think we should separate the voting from that influence," Owsley said.
"This particular board has a real unique domino effect," agreed John Ely, county attorney. Often, it can't add an FM broadcaster to the translator system without kicking someone else off. Capacity is limited by Federal Communications Commission licensing.
Commissioners also informally decided the majority of Translator Advisory Board members must reside within Pitkin County, though some seats will remain open to residents throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. And the board, rather than deciding what stations will get places on the translator system, instead will make recommendations to commissioners.
Previously, the commissioners were to hear appeals of Translator Board decisions, but that appeared likely to result in an endless cycle of appeals by whatever stations were taken off the system or were denied access, Mattice said.
"We need to go back to the beginning with this policy and rewrite it," she said.
The Translator Advisory Board also needs to fine-tune the criteria for judging applicants, she said.
The review process for the eight stations that wanted new or more access on the system will start anew, she said. Some of the stations have their own translators but want spots on the county system to improve their signal reach. Others are already on the county system but want additional spots.