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A Woman's Local Commercial FM Station

From June 15, 1994, to January 15, 1997, there was a women's commercial FM radio station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. The principal owner and manager was Bebe Facundus, an immigrant from Bogota, Colombia, who'd attended Marymount College in Virginia and married a U.S. citizen.

Facundus says she sold the station at a profit but was forced to sell when she didn't want to. This is the story of the station, according to my June 9, 1997, interview with Facundus:

Bebe's money and business know-how came from previous careers: first, public relations and fashion taught her about creating an organization; then, interior design for health facilities, taught her attention to detail, writing specifications, and facilities design. She learned financial management from being in charge of household finances.

Bebe wanted to invest in communications, but prices were inflated. After a couple of years looking at prospectuses, she found a small FM station in her home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and she jumped into the process within a month.

Radio frequencies are a scarce commodity; there were eight competitors for the license, and five got as far as the FCC competitive hearing in Washington DC. Facundus says people advised her to pay her competitors off, but she didn't. She got the best lawyers she could, to go against the Goliaths. By the time she applied, the FCC had long done away with its preference for female broadcast ownership and management. She says the administrative law judge who made the first ruling helped her get through the appeals by emphasizing his decision that she was being awarded the station entirely on the merit of her plans, not because of affirmative action.

Facundus declined to say what she paid for the station or sold it for, but said that in today's market an FM station even in a small town would cost at least a half a million just to buy (station prices vary according to the population reached) - and that if you want to succeed with running it you have to have "millions."

Facundus says she would have had enough money to buy the station herself, but she made a decision she later regretted to take other investors. She felt she had to offer a partnership to the engineer who found the frequency for her. She says she owned 25% of the shares at the beginning but by the end owned 83%. From the start, she had the best communications lawyers draw up papers saying no one else could own as many shares as she, and that she would get total management control, "because the one who has the money holds the reins." She says the other investors (all male) signed those papers but ignored the agreements they had signed and immediately tried to wrest control from her. She says if she had it to do over again she would have them not only sign papers but actually write out what was agreed to in their own hand, to try to get them to understand.

Her recommendation for other women would be to start a group of women specifically to own comunications, and use their knowledge as women and business people to put it together, with clarity up front about their goals. She says you could hire capable men, but only hire them, because "if men come in with any money they think they own everything."

The station format Facundus set up was based on Adult Contemporary music piped in via the Westwood 1 satellite. She says there are two types of adult contemporary formats -- "hard," which appeals to a younger audience, and "soft," which appeals to older people and more to women. The music started out as "soft," but she says Westwood later changed the music to be more "hard" and youth-oriented, which affected her audience. She says "men 28-40 love to listen to a woman's station & find out what we're talking about," but that younger men who were attracted by the harder music felt threatened by the women's programming on the air.

Besides music, Facundus aired a locally produced 2-minute program once each hour, to convey constructive, positive, respectful and useful information for women from local experts. She called these tiny programs "seeds."

Examples of the "seed" programs:
A man giving motivational moments;
A show, sponsored by a hospital, on health tips for women;
Women lawyers talking about the law as it affects women in Louisiana (where property in marriage is still affected by the Napoleonic Code) ;
A woman from the Labor Department talking about finding jobs and writing resumes;
A gentleman talking about women in history;
Seasonal safety tips from the police department.

One of her favorite programs featured coaches of women's teams at Louisiana State University talking about the value of women's sports, not only for physical health but for learning teamwork skills that help later in business. Facundus said listeners often called to ask about information they heard.

Facundus sold the archive of these programs to the new station owners along with everything else, but she said she plans to ask them to donate the tapes to the oral history archive at Louisiana State University.

Several things happened during the time the station was operational that hurt the station's chances for success and caused her to sell. One was that gambling was legalized in Louisiana and the gaming industry bought all the billboard space. She had budgeted $1,000 per billboard to promote the station to listeners, and was faced with a catastrophic $3,000 per billboard price.

Another problem was the new Federal Communications Act allowing fewer owners to own more media outlets per community. Even before that passed, her 6,000-watt station, ranked fairly low in the Arbitron audience statistics, was hard pressed to compete for advertisers against 25,000- to 100,000-watt stations (which reached more audience with better reception). Two of her competitors were already in the hands of a single owner, saving them a lot of money in operating costs.

But after Telecommunications Act revision, only three entities owned all the media outlets in Baton Rouge (a pattern repeated throughout the country). The conglomerates could offer group rates for their outlets and undersell Facundus. And competition for outlets among huge corporations made it impossible that she could ever buy more media outlets herself. She says if she had stayed in the radio business under those conditions she would have gone broke, so she bowed to pressure and sold her station.

Today, BeBe Facundus is president of the state branch of the National Women's Political Caucus, working to elect more women to public office, and she is the unpaid motivational coach for the women's basketball team at Louisiana State University. She's planning to write a book about her radio experience.

She says she feels a women's radio station will happen again -- that she was ahead of her time.

Research done at the University, she says, suggests that if a women's station had enough money to keep up a billboard campaign, a lot of people would tune in. Women 40-45 would especially like it, once they "find out that a woman's station is not derogatory or extremist, and the programs have meat not just fluff." The music, she says, should be contemporary and fun but not too loud. The station should be very much in the mainstream and yet be fun. And of course "you have to have the money."

Facundus and I both have heard of other women trying to start radio stations who were unable to raise the needed large sums of money. In England, I heard, an attempt at a women's community station died when a major male backer changed his mind at the last minute. In Marin County, California, a women's group tried to raise enough to buy two stations that were for sale, then cut back to trying to buy just the smaller one, and apparently did not succeed in that either before the Communications Act revision put the price of radio stations through the roof. Bebe said she heard of a case in Nebraska where male co-investors became so uncooperative the woman sold them her shares. There is certainly no proof that all-female investors would have been more cooperative or successful, but it would be good for more women to have enough money to test this hypothesis.

--Frieda Werden