Madison Hodges, longtime station manager and pubradio advocate, dies at 66

Madison Hodges, a longtime manager of public radio stations and advocate for the system who worked to increase the community impact of pubcasters nationwide, died July 18 in Tallahassee, Fla., from cardiac arrest following treatment of a rare bone cancer. He was 66. Hodges ran several university-licensed public radio stations over the course of his career and served as executive director of the University Station Alliance. He also oversaw station services at NPR and spearheaded initiatives with the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program to increase community involvement, help licensees secure CPB funding, identify gaps in public radio’s coverage and quantify stations’ community impact for license-holders. He began his broadcasting career as a reporter for a commercial radio station in Little Rock, Ark., before joining the city’s public radio station, KUAR.

Walter Sheppard, former grant officer for PTFP, dies at 82

Walter Sheppard, a veteran public radio general manager who worked for the federal government’s Public Telecommunications Facilities Program for more than two decades as a federal program officer, died Oct. 19 at the age of 82. Over the course of Sheppard’s career, which began in 1947, he held roles at several public radio stations across the country, including WITF in Harrisburg, Penn.; Boston’s WBUR; and the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority (today known as West Virginia Public Broadcasting), where he served as deputy director in the 1980s and added more radio stations to the network. He joined the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in 1990 to manage grant portfolios as part of PTFP. Sheppard managed several different regions of the program during his 21 years there, including the South and Northeast.

PTFP’s last round of grants, fiscal year 2010

PTFP’s last annual grant round came toward the end of fiscal year 2010, and the agency later began soliciting applications for FY 2011, but the lingering recession and budget stalemate took down the grant program early in 2011. In fall 2011 the Commerce Department agency National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced $20.45 million in PTFP grants for 126 projects. Nearly half the money, $9.9 million, went to replace old equipment at existing stations;
$5.1 million went to extend or start 30 radio services and 1 TV service;
$4.1 million helped TV stations with conversion to digital operation, a major expense during PTFP’s last years. A handful of other grants went to four emergency repair projects during the year, digital radio upgrades, facilities planning by future applicants, a radio reading service for the blind, a distance learning project and the perennial grantee PEACESAT. 2010 PTFP Awards

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AlabamaAlabama Educational Television Commission
Birmingham, AL

A project to assist the Alabama Educational Television Commission, Birmingham, AL, with the acquisition and installation of a Flywheel UPS unit and a 3,000 gallon diesel fuel tank for WIIQ-TV, Demopolis, AL.

Ariz. man accused of stealing PTFP funds pleads not guilty

The Arizona man indicted on charges of embezzling federal funds that were given to start a Native radio station pleaded not guilty April 26 in the District of Arizona U.S. District Court, according to online court records. The attorney representing the defendant, John Bittner, said he may file a motion for Bittner to be mentally evaluated. A jury trial was set for June 5. As Current reported April 23, Bittner is alleged to have used $322,364 in Public Telecommunications Facilities Program funds on personal expenses, including a car, medical costs, child support payments and a trip to Las Vegas. After his indictment, Bittner attempted suicide and spent time in a hospital in Flagstaff, Ariz., his hometown.

Feds arrest Arizona man for stealing Native group’s PTFP money

An Arizona man with a background in Native radio faces federal civil and criminal charges for using a federal grant for personal expenses rather than its intended purpose — starting a radio station for two Navajo organizations. An indictment filed March 27 in the District of Arizona U.S. District Court alleges that John Bittner of Flagstaff misrepresented himself as a certified engineer to New Mexico-based Navajo groups. He obtained a Public Telecommunications Facilities Program grant based on a building plan that he is alleged to have lied about. After the Navajo groups received a PTFP grant at Bittner’s urging, the purported engineer used the $322,364 for child support payments, medical and legal expenses, travel and other personal spending, according to the indictment and a court suit. An FCC FM construction permit awarded to Diné Agriculture Inc., a Navajo nonprofit in Shiprock, N.M., expired in January, dashing plans for the station Bittner had promised to build.

Capital: With federal aid gone, tech fundraising starts from scratch

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.

CPB survives, but not the facilities program

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.

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.

Feds reconsider PTFP grant policy questioned by Sen. Helms

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.

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.

President Kennedy, 1962: Facilities act will help put unused educational TV channels on the air

Statement by President John F. Kennedy, May 1, 1962, upon signing the Educational Television Facilities Act, Public Law 87-447 (76 Stat. 64), which provided subsidies for educational broadcasting facilities. This marks a new chapter in the expression of federal interest in education. One hundred years ago, with the enactment of the Morrill Land Grant College Act, higher education was made a matter of national concern while, at the same time, state operation and control were retained. Today, we take a similar action.

Educational Television Facilities Act of 1962

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 were overseen by the Office of Education in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The successor Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP) was operated by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce until 2011, when budget cutbacks ended PTFP appropriations (Current, April 18, 2001). The act became Part IV of the Public Broadcasting Act:

Declaration of Purpose

SEC. 390.