As in so many civil rights cases, there was a conflict between two rights:
Fortunately, all broadcasters are still prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, or gender.
One FCC commissioner, Harold W. Furchtgott-Roth, issued a separate statement on this 1998 policy. One of his concerns was how to determine whether a employee was a member of the religious group which sponsored the radio or station. For example, a Roman Catholic employee could still consider themselves to be a Catholic even though they had been excommunicated by the Church because they remarried.
Regulating religious content of non-commercial educational TV:
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins:
This Amendment erected a wall of separation between church and state which has been beneficial both to religion and the public. This contrasts with the situation in many other countries of the world which have a various degrees of integration between religion and government. This linkage between state and faith has led to loss of civil rights and a weakening of religion in many areas of the world.
During late 1999-DEC, in an apparent violation of the First Amendment, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a series of regulations which would have severely limit the religious content on non-commercial, educational television (NCETV) stations. (Many decades ago, the FCC reserved 20% of the FM broadcast band for non-commercial educational broadcasting. This was later extended to TV. There are currently about 373 NCETV stations in the U.S. of which about 20 are religious broadcasters.) December's regulations were passed with a 3 to 2 vote by the FCC board.
The new requirements would have stipulated that NCETV broadcasters devote at least 50% of their programming to topics that promote the "educational, instructional or cultural needs of the community." The FCC states that most religious programming would not qualify towards that quota.
The FCC statement said, in part:
The FCC gave a few examples of programs of a religious nature that it felt would meet the "education or cultural" needs of the community, and thus would qualify towards the 50% quota :
Various religious organizations have responded negatively to the FCC ruling. Unfortunately, "media reports and press releases from religious groups have inaccurately suggested that it covers the full range of broadcasting stations, including radio outlets." 7 The ruling is actually restricted to NCETV stations and does not affect any radio broadcasters -- commercial or educational.
According to DayWatch for 2000-JAN-11, "The vice-chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Representative Michael Oxley (R-OH) plans to introduce legislation to reverse the FCC's new guidelines limiting religious content on public television airwaves when Congress reconvenes on January 24th...'In our free society, the FCC has no business suppressing the expression of religious belief,' Oxley said. 'I know the FCC will try to put a good face on this action, but the simple truth is the Commission is restricting those who express faith. This is wrong, and it cannot stand.' " 8
The FCC restrictions would probably have give new life to the tenacious Christian urban legend which states that the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the well known Atheist activist, had promoted a FCC petition. It is alleged that PM 2493 would eventually ban all religious broadcasting by radio and television stations. She is alleged to have petitioned also for the elimination of Christmas songs, programs and carols from TV, radio stations, schools and office buildings. None of that is true, but the rumor lives on.
According to the Conservative News Service, Cornerstone TeleVision has refused to accept a broadcasting license from the FCC, because of the new guidelines. Cornerstone had originally applied for the license as part of a business deal with public television station WQED in Pittsburgh, PA. Their president Oleen Eagle said that the guidelines would "...jeopardize our ability to carry out our mission...there is no benefit that would justify the sacrifice of religious freedom required by the new FCC standards."
On 2000-JAN-28, the FCC reversed its ruling by a four to one vote. 9 The Commission said: "In hindsight we see the difficulty of minting clear definitional parameters for 'educational, instructional or cultural' programming, particularly without the benefit of broad comment. Therefore, we vacate our additional guidance. We will defer to the editorial judgment of the licensee unless such judgment is arbitrary or unreasonable."
Commissioner Michael Powell said in statement, "As I predicted in my dissenting statement opposing this 'additional guidance' in the original order, it has opened a Pandora's Box of problems. In today's decision we put the lid back on the box."
Commissioner Gloria Tristani voted against the reversal, saying, "This is a sad and shameful day for the FCC. In vacating last month's 'additional guidance,' ... this supposedly independent agency has capitulated to an organized campaign of distortion and demagoguery."
Rep. Michael Oxley (R-OH) called the reversal "a complete and total victory for free religious expression. Religious broadcasters and their listeners were a target for an FCC that sought to limit their freedom to express religious faith. It was wrong, and I'm thrilled that the FCC has seen the error of its ways."
Micropower religious broadcasting:
FCC regulations permit some unlicensed FM broadcasting by "micropower" radio stations. However, they were typically limited to less than 1 watt of power and are thus restricted to a range of a few thousand feet or less. Commercial and educational licenses are only granted to stations broadcasting over 100 watts. Various fees and the cost of engineering studies raise the licensing costs to over $50,000 per station. Between the unlicensed stations under one watt and the licensed stations over 100 watt, lies a no-man's land, currently occupied by as many as 1,000 illegal "pirate radio" stations. These are underground stations, typically operated by individuals and involving perhaps a few thousand dollars investment. They have interesting names, like Free Radio Berkeley, Radio X, DC Protest Radio, and Radio Mutiny. 5 The FCC located and closed down hundreds of these every year.
Low cost licensing of micro radio stations between 1 and 100 watts will provide a much greater diversity of opinion than is currently heard on regular radio. Robert McChesney, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wrote: "By failing to accommodate the creation and use of new micro radio technologies that are simple and inexpensive to operate, the FCC has failed to meet its obligation to establish a licensing scheme that meets the public interest." 4
William E Kennard, FCC chairman since 1997, proposed that the airwaves be opened up to "low-power FM broadcasters, so that everyone from university students and church groups to independent radio producers and civil rights activists could enjoy greater access to listeners. After reviewing a series of petitions filed on behalf of self-proclaimed "microbroadcasters" yearning for a legal on-air voice, Kennard last January  introduced a proposal for new low-power FM broadcast licenses that could allow thousands of small broadcasters to operate at power ratings of between 1 to 10 watts, 100 watts, and 1,000 watts, filling in the gaps that now separate bigger stations' signals on the FM dial." 6
The proposal was approved on 2000-JAN-20. Noncommercial stations with a few watts power and a range up to seven miles will be allowed broadcast. The FM radio airwaves would be accessible to small groups of all types. Anyone with a few thousand dollars to invest in equipment, and a small army of volunteers could establish a religious broadcasting station and reach at least a portion of their city. License applications are expected from individual churches, schools, "alternative musicians, and highway departments that want to warn commuters about traffic problems." The National Religious Broadcasters object, saying that the microbroadcasters might create static or distorted signals for established stations. [To the author, an Engineering Physics graduate having taken a communications option, this argument seems rather weak.]
Copyright © 2000 & 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious