PTFP policy review prompted by station with Sunday mass

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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.

Related case in court

Harland confirmed that WFUV’s situation had prompted a policy review, but said that the process had been suspended when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), PTFP’s parent agency, learned that a related case is currently pending before the Supreme Court, and ”might very well have a bearing” on the policy.

NTIA attorney Brian Harris said that both the Fordham situation and the Supreme Court case deal with the First Amendment’s so-called ”establishment clause,” which prohibits the government from promoting religious doctrine. He said that the court’s decision was expected imminently.

WFUV asked PTFP for about $250,000 to upgrade its broadcast tower and about $45,000 to refurbish the studio control room. Jennings said that the tower project would allow the station’s signal to reach an estimated 165,000 people who currently do not receive public radio.

Charles Estep, the PTFP program officer who is handing WFUV’s application, said that after a preliminary review, it had been given a 1-B priority, which denotes an extension of service. Only a new station bringing first service is given a higher priority, he said.

Original intent

Jennings said that WFUV had been further encouraged to apply when it learned indirectly that Ken Salomon, a former NTIA official who had drafted the policy governing sectarian programming in 1978, believes that it is being applied too literally and somewhat arbitrarily.

Contacted by Current, Salomon said that there had been a debate at NTIA in the late 1970s over ”whether or not to exclude religious-affiliated stations and religious groups outright–to just say, ‘You’re not eligible.’ But it was decided that that was going way too far.” He said the rules were intended for 24-hour-a-day religious stations, and not those that are predominantly nonsectarian.

”The policy wasn’t designed to prevent you from playing Handel’s Messiah at Christmas, and indeed PBS carries all kinds of Christmas music specials — Pavarotti and the like — at that time of year, and that doesn’t raise an eyebrow,” he said, adding that NTIA justified this by making an ”interesting” distinction between religious and cultural programming.

”That’s frankly news to me,” said Harland. ”As I read the rules, the interpretation has never been that way at all. That’s all I can say in response to that. What’s down in black-and-white is what’s [important] — what Ken remembers would be interesting, but what I’ve heard from attorneys since is that that is not the interpretation.”

”Not even-handed”

After hearing from Salomon and re-evaluating the actual wording of the PTFP policy, Jennings said, ”it was our considered opinion that we did not contravene [the original intent of the rules], so we applied for it.” He said WFUV’s application did not address the religious programming issue.

“We signed off on the assurance that we are not using the station for essentially sectarian purposes, because we don’t believe we are,” he said. “If they don’t agree with that, there’ll be plenty of time to get our legal counsel involved.”

Jennings said he thought that WFUV’s programming had received special attention because Fordham is identified with the Jesuit order. ”Other stations who simply sign off on [the assurance], and don’t have a Jesuit flag flying or some other flag of a religious body, are not scrutinized up front,” he said.

“If they’re applying this rule evenhandedly — and it’s obvious that they haven’t — they would either ask the question of everybody or they wouldn’t question anybody,” Jennings said. “For most [stations], the matter of interpreting the rule was left to them. With us, they interpreted it up front.”

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