Religious program dispute drives Chattanooga station out of NPR

Originally published in Current, July 31, 1995

By Jabeen Bhatti

"There is life after NPR," quipped General Manager Dan Landrum, about the "forced withdrawal" of his station, WSMC-FM in Collegedale, Tenn., from membership in NPR.

WSMC told NPR July 10 [1995] that it was voluntarily relinquishing its 24-year NPR affiliation, effective Sept. 30, after receiving notice that the network would continue membership termination proceedings initiated in early June.

NPR alleges that WSMC violated the network's membership agreement by airing too much religious programming. The station, which serves the Chattanooga area, is run by Seventh-Day Adventist Southern College and preempts regular NPR programming for the Sabbath from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday--sometimes in the middle of All Things Considered--to air a variety of religious programs and inspirational music.

The station has been engulfed in controversy since November when disgruntled listeners began to write letters, first to the Chattanooga Times and later to CPB and NPR, expressing dissatisfaction with the preemptions and the mix of religious and secular programs.

WSMC formed a community advisory board to deal with the issue in March, but a listener group called Chattanoogans for Better Public Radio pressed the college to choose between airing complete NPR programs, letting nearby WUTC-FM air them, or giving up the license.

Susan Davis, NPR's director of station and program services, said WSMC violated its membership contract on two points: airing more religious programming than is considered a public service, and preempting regular NPR programs.

NPR was responding to listener complaints from Tennessee. "It is the listeners or the FCC that brings violations to our attention," Davis said. Other stations that carry limited amounts of religious programming, such as Fordham University's WFUV in New York City, haven't been the subject of complaints. Moreover, WFUV's Sunday Mass lasts only an hour and is considered a public service.

"The only reason I am upset is because I believe that NPR acted prematurely," said Landrum. WSMC was talking with the other local public radio station--WUTC at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga--and the presidents of the two colleges had been having conversations about transferring NPR programs to WUTC. "The idea was to do what was best for the community," said Landrum. "I explained this to NPR, but they didn't listen."

WUTC, a jazz/progressive station that is already an NPR member and airs some NPR programs, will pick up NPR news programs despite the added financial cost.

Landrum expects to focus WSMC more on public affairs and business in the Chattanooga area, and to buy more programming from Public Radio International while continuing to carry such NPR programs as Performance Today as a nonmember. He said there would be no increase in religious programming.

In the meantime, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which has been fighting the Fordham station in court over grant eligibility, is seeking public comments to reconsider its position against equipment grants to stations that carry religious programs.

NTIA administrator Larry Irving said July 21 that the agency will seek to write a rule that neither punishes stations that carry religious programs nor allows them to use federal money in promoting religion. Comments are due at NTIA on Aug. 21.

At the same time, CPB is examining WSMC's eligibility to receive funds.

As for the risk that CPB will withdraw its support for the Tennessee station, Landrum observed, "I hope that won't happen, as it's a valuable resource. Still, not having to pay for NPR will decrease our expenses. There is life after CPB, too."


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Earlier news: Current Briefing on public broadcasting and religion.

Earlier news: A listener group questions WSMC's mix of religious and secular programming, 1995.>


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