KUSC-FM General Manager Wallace Smith didn't mince words when asked about the potential impact of interference caused by a new Tijuana-based radio signal.
"I don't want to be too dramatic, but it could destroy us," Smith said.
KUSC, a commercial-free public broadcasting station, survives primarily on contributions from listeners. "Nobody wants to pay for a service they can't hear," Smith said.
The problem started Jan. 27, when Mexican station XHTIM-FM switched its frequency from 103.3 to 91.5, putting it at the same spot on the dial as KUSC, which is licensed to the University of Southern California. Since the switch, most fans of KUSC's classical music in San Diego County and southern Orange County can only receive the Mexican signal, while KUSC listeners in many areas of Los Angeles find static accompanying the selections of Mozart, Bach and the other great composers.
The situation has put KUSC on a collision course with the Federal Communications Commission, and in the center of a longstanding debate about how the FCC handles its relationship with Mexican broadcasting interests.
KUSC has filed a formal complaint with the FCC, charging that the Tijuana station is operating illegally. Although the FCC has no direct jurisdiction over Mexican stations, under the terms of a U.S.-Mexico treaty ratified in 1972, the FCC is usually given the opportunity to comment on any proposed frequency changes that may interfere with American stations.
Last year, the FCC concurred with a decision by its Mexican counterpart to allow XHTIM to switch frequencies and broadcast from about 15 miles south of the border. But KUSC officials believe the station is actually transmitting from Tijuana, according to KUSC's attorney, Lawrence Bernstein.
XHTIM officials could not be reached for comment.
KUSC management learned of the FCC's decision to OK the XHTIM frequency change entirely by accident in November, Smith said, when an engineer noticed it in a report. The FCC never notified the station that it had given its approval, Smith said.
The new Mexican station operating at the same frequency--even 15 miles to the south--could severely hinder KUSC's long-pending application to upgrade its signal and move its tower from Flint Peak to Mt. Wilson, Bernstein said. When the station first filed its request more than a year ago, there were no stations operating at the same frequency.
KUSC has filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act seeking documents related to the decision. Bernstein said the station is considering filing a petition to force more communication between the FCC's own departments and broadcasters.
"We did not get notified and, as we understand it, they are not required to notify us, but we think that is a violation of the public trust," Smith said. "They should have let us know."
Rod Porter of the FCC's Mass Media Bureau confirmed that the FCC concurred with the Mexican government's decision to allow XHTIM to switch frequencies. But he said that he was unaware of the specifics of KUSC's complaint, and declined further comment.
Competition and signal interference from Mexican-based stations has long been a source of irritation for Southwestern broadcasters. XHTIM initially switched frequencies after longstanding complaints about interference from San Diego-based KJQY-FM (103.7).