The evaporation of the Commerce Department’s Public Telecommunications Facilities Program and the dwindling of other funding sources have created a critical situation at stations needing to purchase or update equipment for broadcasting. PTFP had provided public stations more than $233 million in capital funds since 2000. The congressional budget ax fell in April 2011, zeroing out PTFP’s annual $20 million allotment for matching grants. Compounding the problem is the parallel fall-off of state money, which also helped some stations cover equipment costs. At the same time, hardware for the first digital TV installations in the early 2000s is slowly approaching replacement time.
This year, St. Patrick’s Day was the deadline for pubcasters to ask Uncle Sam for help replacing their ancient, failing transmitters, or for a broadcast starter-set to put a new station on the air. It was also one of those days when Congress lurched toward its budget compromise — and took back the offer. Gone is the 49-year-old Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, a $20-million line item in the Department of Commerce, which had been saved year after year by supporters in Congress. This time they were too busy saving PTFP’s younger and bigger sibling, CPB.
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 , 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.
After questioning by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has begun an internal review of its refusal of equipment grants to a North Carolina public radio station that carries 90 minutes of church programming on Sundays. Since early this year, NTIA has been threatening to rescind a $175,000 grant to Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., for tower reconstruction at WFDD-FM, the university’s NPR-member station. NTIA grants officer George White told the university in a March 21 letter that it could receive the grant only if it dropped the religious programming, according to Helms.
Helms, a friend of Wake Forest President Thomas K. Hearn, intervened April 27 with a letter to NTIA Administrator Larry Irving, questioning the decision. As long as NTIA’s Public Telecommunications Facilities Program exists, Helms said, ”qualified recipients should not be discriminated against for broadcasting, once a week, a Sunday school and church service.”
NTIA this month informed the station that its grant decision was on hold and will be reviewed by the agency. It was not clear at Current press time whether NTIA was reviewing its broader policy rejecting grant requests from other public radio stations that carry some religious programming.
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 . 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.
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.
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  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.
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.
With this law, signed by President Kennedy on May 1, 1962, Congress gave the first major federal aid to public broadcasting. The grants for new and replacement facilities and equipment initially were overseen by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare; the successor Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) was operated by a Commerce Department agency, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Amid budget showdowns, Congress defunded PTFP after fiscal year 2010. PART IV — GRANTS FOR EDUCATIONAL TELEVISION BROADCASTING FACILITIES
Declaration of Purpose
SEC. 390. The purpose of this part is to assist (through matching grants) in the construction of educational television broadcasting facilities.