Magazine article The American Prospect

Don't Touch That (Nonprofit) Dial

Magazine article The American Prospect

Don't Touch That (Nonprofit) Dial

Article excerpt

Christian radio stations have an extensive following in the United States. Out of 12,199 total radio stations on the AM and FM dials, 1,511 of them are Christian. And their audiences are loyal when a 1975 petition called for limits on religious groups' ownership of noncommercial radio stations, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) received upward of 700,000 letters of complaint from listeners who feared that religion would be banned from radio.

But after a widely publicized radio deal in Washington, D.C., this summer, the latest controversy over religious programming may not be about religion or free speech, but about money.

In June of this year, religious broadcasting giant (and distributor of Oliver North's radio show) Salem Communications, Inc., tried to purchase WDCU, the University of the District of Columbia's cash-strapped, jazz-format radio station. Desperate to close an $18 million deficit, !he university was willing to sell its noncommercial station to Salem for $13 million, despite the fact that Salem was a commercial buyer that had set up a nonprofit corporation exclusively for the WDCU deal.

Noncommercial stations are reserved for educational institutions and organizations only. According to the FCC, religious groups that operate schools or universities are "eligible to operate a broadcast station on a channel reserved for noncommercial educational use in the community in which [they] operate the school." Thus, to make themselves eligible to purchase WDCU, Salem's owners created their own "school," the Community Resource Educational Association, a nonprofit on whose board they sit.

The Media Access Project (MAP), a public-interest advocacy group, voiced its opposition immediately, threatening to file a challenge with the FCC against the purchase. According to MAP director Andrew Schwartzman, "Salem was trying to set up what I can fairly call a front." In the face of broad opposition to the deal, Salem eventually withdrew its offer and WDCU was sold to C-SPAN. But even though the Salem deal was thwarted, commercial broadcasters remain a threat to community radio. Reed Hundt, the FCC chairman, issued a statement on the WDCU sale in which he explained that he, too, was "concerned that this sale may typify a larger trend. All over the country, institutions like UDC find themselves under pressure to bring in revenues. Will they, too, sell off their noncommercial stations? What will result for the public?"

The FCC, of course, cannot and should not deny religious groups their right to the airwaves. …

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