After sundown Friday in Chattanooga, is WSMC still a public radio station?

Originally published in Current, April 3, 1995

By Jabeen Bhatti

"Chattanooga is being deprived of a serious NPR station." This complaint from public radio listener Bob Steverson, in a letter to the Chattanooga Times last fall, prompted a sometimes-heated debate over what a public radio station should be and whether it can devote broadcast time to religious purposes.

At the heart of the controversy is WSMC, a small 34-year-old station licensed to the Seventh Day Adventist Church's Southern College in Collegedale, Tenn., a suburb of Chattanooga.

WSMC carries a typical public radio schedule until Friday sundown, when it drops NPR news programming, sometimes in the middle of All Things Considered. For the next 24 hours--during the Adventists' Sabbath--the schedule switches to inspirational classical music and a variety of local and national religious programs, mostly Adventist, including a local church service.

This amounts to "censorship," in the view of Steverson and cohorts in a new citizen group he is organizing, Chattanoogans for Better Public Radio. The group is planning to challenge WSMC's license.

The station, meanwhile, has established a new community advisory board to discuss the programming issue and the station's future. At the advisory board's first meeting March 14 [1995], only a few people voiced complaints about the station, according to General Manager Dan Landrum. But Steverson said he brought four carloads of dissatisfied listeners, and regrets that they weren't more vocal.

Molly Sasse, executive director of Chattanooga's Allied Arts Council, who serves on the new advisory board, expects it will deal with questions of the station's future. She said people associated with her group and the station "have suggested that Allied Arts would be an appropriate home for WSMC," but she doubted that Allied Arts has the money or the staff to take in the station.

WSMC's Saturday programming didn't pose a difficult issue when Southern College and its constituents provided more of its audience and its support, according to Landrum. WSMC started off serving Collegedale (population 5,000), but as it boosted its transmitter power and audience in the 1970s, it teamed up with secular NPR programming in what Steverson described as an "awkward marriage of convenience." This programming mix set off complaints involving both musical tastes and constitutional principles.

"Public radio should not be subject to the strictures or scriptures of any single group--it belongs to the public," wrote one listener. Others complained the WSMC didn't offer the full range of national programming such as Metropolitan Opera performances, Weekend Edition and Weekend ATC. Another listener objected that, "by accepting money from CPB, WSMC is in violation of the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state, as the station devotes a portion of its broadcast week to proselytizing. By doing this, WSMC, financed in part by tax dollars, is operating illegally."

The funding question already had been addressed--with contrary results from two different federal funding sources--at both WSMC and at Fordham University's WFUV-FM in New York City, which carries a single Sunday worship service. Both stations have been denied equipment grants from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

But both stations continue to receive federal operating assistance through CPB, a federally established and funded nonprofit corporation. CPB's grant criteria deny eligibility to stations whose schedules are "designated to further the principles of particular political or religious philosophies." But CPB views a small percentage of religious programming as a public service rather than a violation of the principle of separation of church and state, according to Priscilla Weck, director of station grants administration.

Fans of the Tennessee station as well as critics say constitutional rights are at stake. They assert that, since the college funds WSMC, the college has the right to choose its programming. One listener, in a letter to the editor, linked the issue with religious freedom, arguing that the station had "a right and even a mandate to offer religious programming during sabbath hours," because it's run by an Adventist college.

That is also the college's view. Since it holds the license, contributes nearly half of WSMC's budget and provides a service to the larger community, Southern College contends that it has the right to broadcast what it chooses. Donald Sahly, president of the college and board chairman of WSMC, said the station has gotten very few complaints about its programming over the past nine years of his chairmanship. Religious programming is popular with most people in the area, he said. "As long as the religious programming is general, multidenominational, mostly music and not evangelistic," he added, "it is not a violation of the church-and-state issue."

Though the programming is conservative, in keeping with its community and the college, WSMC's schedule is not as conservative or religious as local Adventists would like, Sahly said. "They do not support the station financially; they would have closed the station long ago," he explained. "They feel the station should be evangelistic in purpose, more conservative."

He said the station exists to provide a teaching lab for the college's broadcasting students as well as to serve the community. Adventists are a very small part of the population, numbering about 7,000 of a total of approximately 286,000, and are a fraction of WSMC's audience, estimated at 28,000.

Such options as merging with another station or splitting off from the college have come up in the past--"in fact, every time we talk about the budget," Sahly commented. If Congress slashes CPB funding, he said, the college would look at those options more seriously.

Though the college has contributed a decreasing portion of WSMC's budget over the years, it still provides almost half of the $600,000 total. Equal parts of the remainder come from membership contributions, underwriters and CPB.


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Earlier news Earlier news: Current Briefing on public broadcasting and religion.

Later news Later news: Dispute drives Chattanooga station out of NPR.

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