Christian radio, NPR battle for radio signals as listeners complain

Posted: Friday, March 19, 2004

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) One morning last month, WJTM-FM began the day with its usual fare of Christian preaching and prayer. But that afternoon, the programming changed to something that some longtime listeners find offensive National Public Radio.

WJTM, a station reaching 1.2 million listeners on the northwestern outskirts of Baltimore and Washington, had been taken over by WYPR-FM, a Baltimore-based NPR-affiliate. The change, which has been challenged by two congressmen and dozens of listeners, reflects a battle being waged nationwide for ears at the lower end of the radio dial.

NPR and religious broadcasters, some of whom believe the public radio promotes a liberal agenda, are competitors for the relatively small number of noncommercial FM frequencies between 88.1 and 91.9 megahertz. College radio stations, the other sizable group of not-for-profit broadcasters, typically lack funds to fight aggressively for licenses.

Religious broadcasters have won some battles. In Lake Charles, La., the Christian broadcasting company American Family Radio knocked two NPR affiliates off the local airwaves in 2001 by obtaining a full-power license that overpowered the low-budget NPR translator stations a tactic permitted by federal law.

''As the media markets have grown, the competition for those frequencies has increased and those licenses represented by space on the broadcast dial are becoming more and more valuable,'' said the Rev. Frank Wright, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, a 1,700-member association in Manassas, Va.

NPR spokeswoman Jenny Lawhorn said the competition has prompted initiatives by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and its supporters to help public broadcasters acquire frequencies and expand their offerings. She denied the liberal-bias charge.

Religious broadcasters have led in station numbers since a 1990s growth spurt, with more than 1,800 AM and FM outlets compared with 772 mostly FM National Public Radio stations, according to Arbitron and NPR.

But NPR has become a more aggressive bidder for licenses since 2001, when the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting helped establish an organization to broker and finance station acquisitions.

That organization, Denver-based Public Radio Capital, helped negotiate the $5-million deal that created WYPR two years ago. It also was the intermediary in WYPR's agreement to buy WJTM from Joy Public Broadcasting Corp., a Wisconsin-based owner of stations devoted to Christian programming, for $1.2 million.

Joy sold WJTM ''to solidify some of the financial condition of the rest of the corporation,'' said Thomas Bush, a Joy board member. The deal is awaiting Federal Communication Commission approval, but the purchase agreement has allowed WYPR to assume operations before the sale is completed.

The transaction has stirred protests because it replaces Frederick County's only locally based Christian station with programming that duplicates some material already heard in the area on three other NPR stations originating in Washington and West Virginia. Popular programs including ''Morning Edition,'' ''All Things Considered'' and ''Car Talk,'' can now be heard on four stations in Frederick, a city of 53,000 about 45 miles from both Baltimore and the nation's capital.

''I don't think we need another NPR station because people can get it,'' said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md. He and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., whose district is within WJTM's 40-mile range, have asked the FCC to meet with local listeners to discuss the ownership change.

Anthony Brandon, president and general manager of Your Public Radio Corp., WYPR's owner, noted that several Christian radio stations originating elsewhere also can be heard in Frederick. ''This is not about us trying to displace Christian broadcasting,'' he said.

Brandon said the acquisition is in the public interest because WYPR is the area's only NPR station featuring an all-Maryland local news report. He called it ''unrealistic'' for lawmakers to interfere in the transaction, part of WYPR's plan for building a statewide public broadcasting network.

That's an unsettling prospect for Boni Buchanan of Boonsboro, who enjoyed WJTM's Christian programming and finds some public radio material offensive. Recently on an NPR station, she said, ''they were talking about rock 'n' roll and people climbing into the back seat of the car and ... I had to turn it off. I don't want to hear that.''

And while most NPR stations feature a mix of public affairs, news and music programs, some material broadcast on the afternoon of WJTM's changeover including a discussion of the same-sex marriage debate from a homosexual perspective probably fell into the category of material that some former WJTM listeners would rather tune out.

Still, an FCC spokeswoman said that when considering license applications, her agency historically has not held meetings like the one the congressmen are suggesting.

Wright, of the National Religious Broadcasters, said he is nonetheless encouraged by the FCC's renewed emphasis on ensuring that broadcasters operate in the public interest.

To him, the takeover of WJTM raises a question: ''How is it in the public interest to have duplication of services and have another group that is not being served? Radio stations are going to find an increasingly inquisitive FCC along those lines.''

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