Lutheran Church Threatened by $12 Million Loss in FCC Fight

Article excerpt

One of the oldest radio stations in St. Louis, KFUO-AM founded in 1924, and the oldest FM station in the area, KFUO-FM founded in 1948, are in serious danger of losing their licenses.

Both stations are owned by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the most conservative branch of the Lutheran Church in America. The AM station broadcasts religious programming and the FM station has a classical music format.

In January 1990, the St. Louis Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to not renew KFUO-AM-FM's licenses because of racial discrimination in the stations' hiring practices.

To make matters worse, during last summer's license-renewal hearing the FCC itself charged the stations with a "lack of candor" in several important areas, including their minority-hiring guidelines. The FCC found that the guidelines filed with the FCC were not the actual guidelines used by the stations.

On top of all this, more than a year after the NAACP brought its charges against KFUO-AM-FM, the St. Louis School District decided to sell its own small radio station, KSLH, to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Citing the need for money to carry out desegregation and redress imbalances in education for St. Louis' African-American community, the school district ironically chose the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod over a dozen other prospective buyers.

In a second petition, the NAACP asked the FCC not to allow the sale of KSLH to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

A decision by the FCC on both petitions will be rendered in a few weeks.

Although radio stations rarely lose their licenses, the allegations are so strong and the FCC has recently put so much emphasis on equal opportunity that the possibility exists that KFUO-AM-FM might well be forced to end operations. That would mean a loss to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod of perhaps $12 million, representing the potential sales value of the stations with the license.

Institutional racism?

Dennis Stortz, general manager of KFUO-AM-FM, believes the charges by both the NAACP and the FCC are unfair. He says the confusion was caused by KFUO-AM-FM not knowing exactly what the FCC wanted.

"We do not lie to people. And we're not racists," he says.

But Charles Mischeaux, president of the St. Louis NAACP, firmly disagrees. "I think they knew what they were doing. I think it was conscious racial discrimination," he says. "When they needed a janitor or a secretary, they were able to find a black person."

In 1989, at the end of the license period, two of KFUO-AM-FM's 25 employees were African-Americans, one a janitor, the other a receptionist.

The stations' management maintains that, in order to do their jobs, on-air personnel, sales people and even engineers must be familiar with Lutheran teachings or at least with classical music. They say they were unable to find blacks with either qualification.

But, since only 5 percent of blacks are Lutheran, the first rule seems to put in place a kind of de facto discrimination. And in reference to the second rule, Mischeaux says that saying blacks have no knowledge of classical music is simply a "racist statement." He points out a number of symphonic composers, musicians and conductors who are African-American.

The FCC concurred. The hearing judge described KFUO's explanation of its hiring practices as unacceptable. He said they were vague and had a "direct adverse impact on blacks."

Mischeaux also points out that although Stortz, the current general manager, is Lutheran, the former general manager of KFUO-FM, Thomas Lauher, was not a Lutheran.

(Editor's note: Lauher's testimony before the FCC last summer drew protests from NAACP attorneys. Back in 1989, before he was fired by KFUO-FM, Lauher had written two memos suggesting that the station was lax in its equal employment hiring policies. …