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Religious radio targets npr { September 15 2002 }

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Sunday, September 15, 2002, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Permission to reprint or copy this article/photo must be obtained from The Seattle Times. Call 206-464-3113 or e-mail with your request.

Religious stations put squeeze on NPR

By Blaine Harden
The New York Times

LAKE CHARLES, La. The Rev. Don Wildmon, founding chairman of a mushrooming network of Christian radio stations, does not like National Public Radio.

"He detests the news that the public gets through NPR and believes it is slanted from a distinctly liberal and secular perspective," said Patrick Vaughn, general counsel for Wildmon's network, American Family Radio.

In Lake Charles, American Family Radio has silenced what its boss detests. The network knocked two NPR affiliate stations off the local airwaves last year, transforming this southwest Louisiana community of about 95,000 into the most populous place in the United States where "All Things Considered" cannot be heard.

In place of that program and "Morning Edition," "Car Talk" and a local Cajun program called "Bonjour Louisiana" listeners now find "Home School Heartbeat," "The Phyllis Schlafly Report" and the conservative evangelical musings of Wildmon, whose network broadcasts from Tupelo, Miss.

The Christian stations routed NPR in Lake Charles under a federal law that allows noncommercial broadcasters with licenses for full-power stations to push out those with weaker signals the equivalent of the varsity team kicking the freshmen out of the gym.

The losers are so-called translator stations, low-budget operations that retransmit signals of bigger, distant stations. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considers them squatters on the far left side of the FM dial, and anyone with a full-power license legally can run them out of town.

Religious broadcasters have done this to public-radio stations in Oregon and Indiana, too, and many large-market public-radio stations, such as WBEZ in Chicago, complain that new noncommercial stations, most of them religious, are stepping on the signal at the edge of their transmission areas.

Stations are scrambling for these frequencies at a time of rapid growth in the national NPR audience and even faster growth in religious networks such as American Family Radio. The network owns 194 stations, has 18 affiliates and has applications for hundreds more pending with the FCC.

"The noncommercial band is getting very, very crowded, and there just is not a lot of room for new stations in desirable areas," said Robert Unmacht, a Nashville, Tenn.-based radio consultant. "The competition is fierce, and the Reverend Wildmon is especially hard-nosed. His people are very good at what they do."

Public radio is belatedly fighting back. Last year, a national nonprofit organization was set up to fend off the new hardball competition. Public Radio Capital raises money through tax-exempt bonds to help local public stations end their reliance on translators and buy full-power stations.

Public Radio Capital, created with seed money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a federally financed agency, has helped public-radio stations in Chicago, Denver, Nashville and Tacoma to outbid their competition.

In Tacoma, the organization bought a noncommercial FM station from a local technical college for $5 million. Money to operate the station will come from major public stations in the area.

For many of NPR's 273 member organizations, the legal and administrative costs of competing against religious broadcasters are sponging up millions of dollars that otherwise could be spent on news and other local programming.

"It is, like, nuts," said Torey Malatia, general manager of WBEZ, which has the country's third-largest public-radio audience. "Starting about four years ago we realized that if we didn't learn how to fight back, our coverage area would effectively shrink by a million people."

Religious broadcasters often are far better prepared for the radio wars. "They have employed a long-term strategy, where we have failed to do that," said Dana Davis Rehm, a vice president at NPR in Washington.

Religious broadcasters are snapping up most noncommercial stations when they come on the market. In the first two quarters of 2002, 14 noncommercial stations were sold. Of those, public-radio groups bought two.

Competition between religious and public-radio stations is not always acrimonious. Competitors have amicably divided a contested frequency in some cases by agreeing to use directional antennas that limit interference.

In Lake Charles, rage at the loss of all access to NPR has fueled a yearlong effort to bring back public radio.

"What Wildmon has done to the public broadcasting band is try to eat it all," said Robert McGill, 74, an NPR devotee.

Wildmon, who became well-known in the 1970s when he led national campaigns against sex and violence on television, declined to be interviewed.

Vaughn, general counsel for American Family Radio, acknowledged that the network was aware that its two new stations would be "blocking out" public radio in Lake Charles. But, he added, "We were in no way targeting it."

Copyright 2002 The Seattle Times Company

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