One musical voice gaining ground on public radio sounds a little scruffier than the rest. Rather than a viola or sax, it bears a six-string axe and a heavier backbeat than your average chamber ensemble. Triple-A, an eclectic format that blends rock, folk, blues, world music and other genres, has already proven popular and lucrative for stations such as New York’s WFUV, Philadelphia’s WXPN and southern California’s KCRW. But smaller stations in fly-over country, inspired by the format’s major-market success, are also displacing jazz and classical music for newer musical genres that carry themselves like outsiders. As a result, listeners may be tuning in to the sultry lilt of young chanteuse Norah Jones or the twang of O Brother blues rather than Mozart and Gershwin.
Fordham University’s WFUV-FM and its opponents across the street at the New York Botanical Garden have been quietly pursuing an alternative site for the station’s tower, even while their defenders sparred publicly in FCC forums June 27. After eight years of legal struggles with the botanical garden, WFUV hangs its antenna from a tower that, despite being cut short by halted construction, offends the garden’s management. Both sides are encouraged by progress of negotiations for the alternative site. Garden spokesman Karl Lauby says only that the site is “up north” and WFUV General Manager Ralph Jennings won’t discuss its location at all. Neither wants to set off new opposition or alert landowners that their site is a rare one.
New York state’s highest court early this month unanimously upheld WFUV-FM’s right to complete the radio tower on Fordham University’s Bronx campus, despite complaints from the nearby New York Botanical Garden that the tower spoils the skyline. This was the fifth victory in various administrative and court appeals. For nearly four years the tower has remained half-built. The ruling by the New York State Court of Appeals upheld a local zoning ruling that permitted the tower. Remaining federal historic issues are being mediated between the university and the botanical garden.
The New York Botanical Garden, still fighting the completion of a nearby 480-foot tower for WFUV-FM, told the FCC late in October that the station should disguise the antenna as a 185-foot double flagpole. In its reply to the commission, WFUV said the notion was “without technical or practical merit” and asked for approval of its construction permit. The botanists are “trying to sidetrack the commission” and extend the two-and-a-half-year delay, says Ralph Jennings, g.m. Before proposing the double flagpole, the garden had suggested a stone tower to hold the antenna, but it was not feasible, he says. “All these things would be pretty, but they’re about 200 feet high, which is no higher than what we’ve got now.” The garden hired Washington engineers Cohen, Dippell and Everist to work with architects, who came up with the flagpole design, and commended the idea to other communities where stark towers are planned.
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  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.
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.
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.