Nothing’s easy in the Bronx, where botanists are tough

Fordham University's WFUV has withstood for the third time a neighbor's challenge to its plan to complete a 480-foot transmitting tower on its Bronx campus. The state Supreme Court in Manhattan upheld June 12 [1996] previous rulings of New York City's Buildings Department and its Board of Standards and Appeals, which accepted the tower as a valid accessory use of the university. But many obstacles remain. The neighboring New York Botanical Garden, which opposes the tower as a blight on its horizon, expects to appeal the court ruling and points out that the city zoning regulators still want Fordham to move the half-built tower 25 feet to make it legal, and that the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to approve the tower. Justice Sheila Abdus-Salaam dissed the garden's esthetic argument.

Federal agency will help station build new tower despite broadcasts of Mass on Sundays

With its new transmission tower half built, WFUV-FM in New York City now has some more money to pay for it, after prevailing in a funding dispute with a federal agency, but its neighbors won't rest until the station tears down the steel and erects it elsewhere. The Fordham University station in the Bronx got its good funding news in December when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration settled the university's lawsuit and gave WFUV an equipment grant of $262,858, plus about $100,000 in legal costs. In declaring WFUV eligible for the federal grant, NTIA Administrator Larry Irving reversed his 1993 decision that the agency would not assist stations carrying religious programming, including WFUV's weekly one-hour Catholic Mass. Under the new policy, NTIA announced on Dec. 20 [1996], public broadcasting stations will be eligible for grants even if ''a grant might result in some attenuated or incidental benefit to sectarian interests,'' though not if religious activities are ''the essential thrust of the grant's purpose.''

''In other words,'' says WFUV General Manager Ralph Jennings, ''it's okay to serve the religious needs as well as the other needs of the community.''

''Religious voices cannot be driven from the public square,'' said Fordham's president, the Rev. Joseph A. O'Hare, in a press statement.

Court backs NTIA in Fordham case

When the new administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration drew a "bright line" against equipment grants to a station that broadcasts a weekly religious service, that was okay with the Constitution, a federal judge has ruled. Larry Irving's decision to make WFUV-FM ineligible for NTIA grants was "within the bounds of the law," said Judge Charles R. Richey of the District Court for Washington, D.C., in a summary judgment June 29 [1994]. WFUV's long struggle with NTIA took an unexpected turn last year when Irving, a new Clinton Administration appointee, reversed a previous NTIA ruling and told the Fordham University station that it was ineligible because of the Mass that it airs every Sunday morning. The rest of the Bronx station's schedule is secular. Fordham, which took NTIA to court last October, has not decided yet whether it will appeal Judge Richey's ruling, according to WFUV's Washington attorney Margot Polivy.

Fordham station sues for PTFP grant eligibility

Reportedly denied eligibility for a federal equipment grant because it carries one church service a week, Fordham University's WFUV-FM has sued the Commerce Department for relief. Both the university and the Commerce Department's Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) apparently use First Amendment arguments to justify their cases. The Jesuit university says Commerce is violating its First Amendment right of free speech as well as the Communications Act, which it says prohibits government control of program content. And PTFP's overseer, new Assistant Secretary of Commerce Larry Irving, reportedly believes that awarding equipment grants to stations with religious programming would undermine the church/state separation required by the First Amendment. Irving's spokesman Larry Williams said the agency is not commenting on the matter because of the pending lawsuit.

PTFP policy review prompted by station with Sunday mass

The public radio station at a Catholic university has applied for a Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) grant after being told the agency is reexamining a policy against grants to stations that carry religious programming. Ralph Jennings, g.m. at Fordham University's WFUV in New York, told Current in December [1991] that PTFP had discouraged him from applying for a grant to upgrade its tower and studio facilities because the station airs a one-hour Catholic mass every Sunday. He said that PTFP Program Officer Richard Harland had stated flatly that federal funds could not be used to purchase or upgrade equipment that would broadcast religious programming. However, in an interview earlier this month, Jennings said that Harland had called him several months ago and told him that PTFP was ''taking a fresh look'' at its policy toward religious programming on otherwise nonsectarian stations. He added that Harland had made it clear that WFUV would not automatically receive a grant just by applying for one.

What does it cost to air a Sunday mass?

At WFUV-FM, a public radio station licensed to Fordham University in the Bronx, the 25-year-old studio soundboard needs to be replaced, and the tower and other transmission facilities could use a major overhaul as well. General Manager Ralph Jennings says he'd like to get a grant from the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) to defray at least half of the estimated cost of $2.5 million to $3 million, but that he hasn't bothered applying because PTFP, a Commerce Department grant program, has told him informally that his station is ineligible for federal funds. The reason is an hour-long Roman Catholic mass that WFUV has been broadcasting from Fordham's campus chapel every Sunday for the last 42 years. Jennings estimates that the program has an audience of between 5,000 and 10,000 listeners, many of whom are shut-ins or others who can't attend regular services. Richard Harland, senior program officer at the PTFP, says it's simply a matter of following the regulations that govern the distribution of federal funds.