High Frequency

Photo by Tenaya HillsSion Huw Anwyl isn't your ordinary Christian minister. He's a social activist, a Cambridge-educated lecturer and a humanitarian who's visited more than 70 conflict-torn countries. In early 2003, he flew to Iraq and prayed with Muslims, met then-deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz (a "very articulate, reasonable man," Anwyl says) and saw the devastating effects of 12 years of U.N. sanctions.

"Before, U.N. estimates of 500,000 child deaths seemed exaggerated," Anwyl says. "But after what I saw in the streets and hospitals, I now believe it."

His diplomacy continues at home. Since 1999, Shepherd of the Hills, Anwyl's Laguna Niguel church, has spent $1.25 million renovating homes in Watts, Compton and Long Beach. Twenty years ago, it founded a child-care center for working mothers of all religious suasions. And every Wednesday morning, a small group of Jews, Baha'is, pilots, teachers and others—including an atheist and Raytheon engineer—meets with Anwyl to discuss science and religion. A recent topic at these God-meets-Galileo confabs: a New Scientist article about the size of the universe. "To me, a cosmological view of life is essential," Anwyl says. "It gets you away from the notion that we're such great characters on top of the heap."

If the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) allows it, Anwyl will soon broadcast such meetings. In 1999, he learned about a noncommercial radio service the FCC has set up for grassroots organizations. Dubbed low-power FM (LPFM) for their 100-watt limits, more than 290 LPFM stations, including 15 in California, have hit the air. But thanks to Orange County's crowded airspace, Anwyl and four other groups vying for the same frequency, 104.7 FM, are still waiting for their licenses.

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"We're trying to build a community station that learns, tolerates and affirms diversity," Anwyl says. "Proselytizing isn't on the agenda. Hearing from a wide range of views, inviting people to disagree yet respect each other, definitely is."

Many talk the diversity talk, but few have walked it as long and hard as Anwyl. His working-class Welsh parents raised him on a British manor in north Wales—a "very upstairs-downstairs situation," he recalls. As a Royal Air Force aide in Southern Rhodesia in the late 1940s, he was appalled by the rise of apartheid across British Africa. Shunning an offer to supervise a tobacco plantation, he moved to the southside of Chicago in 1960; three years later, Anwyl was fired for trying to integrate his all-white church. He's been in Laguna Niguel since.

"A responsible spiritual life entails getting drawn into policy issues," Anwyl says. "If you truly believe we're brothers and sisters on a global basis, that has political consequences."

The 500-foot-high rise of Shepherd of the Hill's location should allow the church's station to cover a 15-mile radius from Mission Viejo to Capistrano Beach. Expect no hidden agendas, Anwyl says, but 100 percent local programming: local bands and experimental DJs, news overlooked by mainstream media, and debates on race and immigration, drug policy and poverty, the county's mounting homelessness—issues Anwyl has wrestled with most of his life. "The only limits are our imaginations," Anwyl says.

The unlikely coalition's diversity has proved a more immediate limitation. There's Rock 'N Roll Preservation Society, a Newport Beach group led by radio enthusiast John Spencer. There's Todd LaPlante, a Huntington Beach real estate broker planning another Newport Beach station with a vague whiff of chamber of commerce about him. (LaPlante refused to speak on the record about his plans for 104.7, but made it clear they don't include sharing.) Then there's International Crusade of the Penny, a Garden Grove charity for handicapped children, and Second Samoan Congregational Church, a Long Beach church striving to become America's first station run by American Samoans.

Last August, the FCC gave the five a chance to resolve their conflicting applications. Those able to find other open frequencies could switch; the rest could run 104.7 as a timeshare. Barring a compromise, the FCC threatened to divide the station among the groups through a flimsy point system of local-programming criteria. The effective FCC message was this: cooperate and get a five-way timeshare now, or forge informal alliances, squeeze out applicants with fewer points, and get a three- or two-way timeshare later.

Such instructions seem designed to spark rivalries among even the friendliest allies. That's what happened here. As the only applicant outside central OC, where airwaves are packed, Anwyl was the only one to land an alternative to the timeshare—his own frequency at 93.7 FM.

According to Second Samoan's LPFM director Misi Tagaloa and International Crusade secretary Mary Luna, the remaining four worked out a tentative timeshare schedule. But eight days before the FCC's Oct. 31 deadline, LaPlante and Spencer sent them a registered letter claiming their applications were invalid and should be withdrawn.

Spencer and LaPlante declined to comment. Bewildered, Luna and Tagaloa deny any secret maneuverings on their part and have double-checked their applications for mistakes. They say they're hoping Spencer and LaPlante will come back to the table.

Practicing what he preaches, Anwyl has abandoned his own frequency and returned to the table, hoping his FCC points might produce a last-minute compromise among all five.

An FCC official familiar—and displeased—with Orange County's LPFM imbroglio called it a "complicated case" requiring up to a year to review.

Asked if LPFM gave him guilt-by-association goose bumps, Anwyl laughed before answering. "I don't think of heaven as a place," he says. "I think we create our own heaven and hell on Earth, so I spend hardly any time worrying about the afterlife. I've got all I can worry about right here."

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