San Francisco's KQED Inc., which operates two TV stations and a radio station, has been a busy place lately. On May 2  the Federal Communications Commission's review board announced its decision to revoke the license of KQEC, a UHF TV station KQED Inc. has run since 1970.
The setback comes just four days after the stations' management won a victory over MonitorRadio, whose producer agreed to end discriminatory hiring practices. Meanwhile, friction continues between mega-power KQED-FM and KALW-FM, a small San Francisco station, over KQED-FM's switch last August to a news format similar to KALW's.
A license in doubt
In the latest action in long series of challenges to KQED Inc.'s licenses, the three-member FCC review board decided unanimously April 18  to revoke KQEC's license. The board then decided to give the license to Minority Television Project (MTP). The decision reverses a 1987 administrative law judge ruling favoring the station's current management.
In its decision, the review board said it was revoking KQEC's license because it claims KQED Inc. lied to the FCC about the reason KQEC was off the air between November 1979 and April 1980. "The willfulness of the licensee's behavior … constrains us to conclude that the licensee's conduct should result in denial of its renewal application for KQEC-TV." The decision said "KQEC actively and intentionally attempted to deceive the commission by representing that its primary reasons for deactivating Channel 32 were other than those involving its budgetary problems." President Tony Tiano says he was shocked at the review board's decision to revoke KQEC's license. "I don't believe that the evidence supports it."
The commission has not revoked a public TV station's license since 1976, when it pulled the Alabama Educational Television Commission's license for alleged racial discrimination. The state network won back the license.
KQED Inc. has been fighting for its licenses since 1974, when a San Francisco group called the Community Coalition for Media Change asked the FCC not to renew any of KQED Inc.'s three licenses, complaining that the stations were unresponsive to the community. The attempt failed, but ushered in a series of challenges that continue today.
Since the mid-1970s, Congress lengthened the three-year license terms for radio and TV stations to five years for TV stations and seven for radio stations. In 1977 and 1980, several groups under the umbrella of the California Public Broadcasting Forum, including the Community Coalition, again asked the FCC to revoke KQED's licenses. Both times, the FCC renewed all three licenses without a hearing.
In 1983, MTP submitted to the commission a competing request for KQEC's license. MTP is "a nonprofit corporation formed for the express purpose of getting minority TV programming in the Bay Area," said Otis McGee, an attorney who is president of the project. MTP is backed by Booker Wade, a former FCC employee who heads a group of entrepreneurs that challenges weak licenses around the country, sometimes successfully, according to Larry Hall, coordinator of the California Forum's litigation efforts and a leading figure in the current negotiations for increased federal funding for independent TV producers (related story).
Dissatisfied with the commission's decision to renew KQED Inc.'s licenses, the forum in 1985 asked the U.S. Court of Appeals to void KQED's 1977 and 1980 license renewals and alleged that KQED lied to the FCC when it cited technical reasons as to why it kept KQEC off the air from November 1979 to May 1980. The court reversed the 1977 and 1980 license renewals and sent the case back to the FCC for a hearing. Last year, the administrative law judge presiding over the FCC's hearing judge renewed KQED Inc.'s licenses, but limited the license renewals to 30 months, finding that KQED "failed to meet the high standards of candor required of licensees." Now the review board has gone beyond the judge's ruling, saying KQED Inc. misrepresented the facts to the FCC.
KQED Inc. received the license for KQEC as a gift from Metromedia in 1970. But KQED kept the station dark between 1972 and 1977, saying that a million-dollar deficit prevented it from operating the station. In late 1975 the FCC warned KQED that it nevertheless had to return KQEC to the air by March 1976 or give up the license. The FCC later extended the date to January 1977, at which point KQEC resumed broadcasting. Tiano became president in 1978. In November 1979 KQEC went dark for six months, citing technical reasons.
The review board's decision states that while KQEC was off the air, KQED Inc. wrote the commission four letters explaining that KQEC was off the air because the stations were installing new equipment.
The FCC decision cites contradictory testimony by a former KQED Inc. director and a former financial officer at the stations, alleging that during this time Tiano and the stations' board considered keeping KQEC off the air for up to eight months to save money and did not mention technical problems. The decision also noted that "the total absence of January 1980 program listings for Channel 32 [KQEC] in the December 1979 issue of Focus [KQED's program guide magazine] is, if not a smoking gun, strong circumstantial evidence ... that, by early 1979, the licensee had absolutely no plans to operate Channel 32 beyond the 1979 calendar year."
While the review board could have revoked all three of KQED's licenses, the decision said that “misconduct at one station'' did not call into question KQED's ability to run its other licenses. It said the loss of one license was a harsh enough punishment in this case.
The review board's decison is final unless KQED Inc. files an application for review, which KQED officials have said they will do. After the commissioners, the next level in the process is the U.S. Court of Appeals. It may take 18 months to two years before any action on the license. Said Tiano, "We believe we will prevail.''
EEO for MonitorRadio
But if last week provided a setback for the San Francisco public station, the week before offered some good news. After two years of pressure from KQED, the Christian Science Publishing Society, producer of the nightly radio news show MonitorRadio, informed the station in an April 28 letter that the society's radio and television departments would abide the FCC's Equal Employment Opportunity guidelines prohibiting discrimination. “I'm pleased,'' Tiano said. "When we started, I didn't have any idea that we would be successful."
The society, which also publishes the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, agreed to hire persons "without regard to their race, color, religion, national origin or sex in all personnel actions," according to the letter.
KQED began pressuring the society after San Francisco's powerful gay community demanded that KQED drop MonitorRadio because the society's religious rules prohibit homosexuality. Gay activists unsuccessfully pressured the city to end its $150,000 a year support of the stations on the grounds that city rules prohibit providing money to organizations that discriminate.
Tiano said that he remained concerned because the society's letter does not specifically mention discrimination based on sexual orientation, but was reassured by a society representative that the broadcast stations would hire gays and lesbians. “He said yes,'' Tiano said. “I asked him two times.''
The local gay community is still not convinced that MonitorRadio is willing to hire gays. And the society's assistant director of publicity, Don Feldheim, would not confirm the response to Tiano's question, or whether MonitorRadio will hire homosexuals.
A talk town
In a smaller San Francisco radio battle, KALW-FM General Manager Daniel del Solar says he remains upset about KQED-FM's switch last year to a format del Solar says imitates KALW's. “They try to mimic us and copy us,'' del Solar told Current recently.
KQED-FM Station Manager David Hosley said KQED is not trying to copy KALW and changed its format to news because “that's where our audience growth was ...I don't feel there's any more conflict here than in any large market,'' he said, adding, “We don't pay much attention to what they do. We cover a larger audience.''
KQED Inc., a community licensee, has San Francisco's most prominent public broadcasting outlets. Its radio station has 110,000 watts of power. KALW, licensed to the San Francisco Unified School District, operates on 1,900 watts.
The two top stations in town, CBS affiliate KCBS-AM and ABC affiliate KGO-AM, both have news/talk formats. While there are other public stations in the Bay Area, KALW and KQED are the only ones that use NPR news programming. KQED airs Morning Editon three times a day; KALW airs it twice. Both stations air NPR programs Fresh Air and All Things Considered and American Public Radio-distributed MonitorRadio twice a day. Del Solar said KQED has duplicated KALW's carriage of a number of documentaries, and now that KALW airs NPR's Fresh Air twice daily, KQED does, too. KALW Program Director Julia Randall said KALW picked up Fresh Air when it was first offered, but KQED started airing it twice daily before KALW did. They also both carry A Prairie Home Companion and BBC news. Even before its format change, KQED aired Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
"A lot of people don't know if they're listening to 88.5 [KQED] or 91.7 KALW],'' Randall said. “How could we possibly have two news and information stations in San Francisco without duplication?''
Hosley emphasized the stations' differences. “We have a tremendous commitment to local news. They have none,'' he said. Counters Randall, “If I had KQED's resources, I would have a news department.''
But despite the format anger, the two stations have found ways to cooperate. Randall says if one station misses a satellite feed, the other will supply a copy. And the bottom line may not be so grim for KALW, either. “Their format change doesn't seem to have hurt us as far as fundraising or audience figures,'' Randall said.
Web page posted April 12, 2004
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