Progressive radio talk-show host Lynn Samuels, 69, who began her career on public radio, was found dead in her Queens, N.Y., apartment on Christmas Eve, the New York Daily News reported. When Samuels didn’t show up for her Sirius XM show Dec. 24, reps for the satellite radio company had asked the police to investigate. Samuels began her radio career in 1979 at Pacifica Radio’s WBAI in New York City. In the 1980s she moved to WABC Radio.
Whenever public broadcasting is threatened by hostile politicians, the conventional wisdom is to circle the wagons and fire back. As a member of the public television community for almost 50 years, I would rather see today’s challenge as an opportunity to reassess public television’s goals and achievements. Perhaps we should do this every few years to make sure we haven’t gone astray in our aims and practices. In many ways I think NPR has surpassed its original goals and promises, but public television is another matter. We have accomplished many things.
At a feel-good press conference May 13, all parties hailed the resolution of a decade-long fight over the tower of Fordham University’s WFUV-FM in New York City.The Daily News likened the scene to a Rose Garden peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. Even Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued a joint news release endorsing Montefiore Medical Center’s offer to put the antenna atop its residential building. The new site is one-and-a-half miles from the scene of the station’s festering dispute with the nearby New York Botanical Garden, which says the present tower spoils the surroundings. Ralph Jennings, WFUV’s g.m., is saving his big hooray for the day when the station starts transmitting from the new tower. With its new antenna nearly 500 feet above average terrain and radiating 50 kilowatts of power, the station will reach farther into Brooklyn, Westchester County and Connecticut, instantly doubling its potential audience to more than 13 million.
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.
Not every American will buy what Ric Burns and Lisa Ades are selling, but in the 10 hours airing this week on many public TV stations they make the strongest possible case for the greatness of New York City. Diehard New York–haters will quickly overdose on the soaring rhetoric and the flyovers of the fantastical Chrysler Building, but that’s no surprise to Burns. “The ambivalence toward New York is very powerful and a central component of the story,” he says. “It has only gotten stronger as power has accumulated there.” The story was so big that the producers gave up squeezing it into 10 hours and will deliver two more hours early next year — a sixth episode covering 1931-99.
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.
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.