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Christian radio, NPR battle for radio signals

February 29, 2004|by DAVID DISHNEAU

FREDERICK, Md. - On the morning of Feb. 16, radio station WJTM broadcast its usual fare of Christian preaching and prayer. But that afternoon, the programming changed to something longtime listeners abhorred.

An anthropologist spoke approvingly of casual sex. A "gay historian" fielded calls on same-sex marriage. National Public Radio had arrived. WJTM, a 4,000-watt station reaching 1.2 million listeners on the western outskirts of Baltimore and Washington, had been taken over by radio station WYPR, a Baltimore-based NPR-affiliate.

The change, which has been challenged by two congressmen and dozens of listeners, reflects a battle being waged across the country for ears at the lower end of the radio dial. NPR and religious broadcasters, some of whom believe NPR 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 compete aggressively for licenses.

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"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 acknowledged that "the landscape is competitive," prompting initiatives to help public broadcasters acquire frequencies and expand their offerings. Religious broadcasters lead in station numbers after 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 Denver-based Public Radio Capital, an organization to broker and finance station acquisitions.

PubCap 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 Christian stations, for $1.2 million.

Joy sold the station "to solidify some of the financial condition of the rest of the corporation," said Thomas Bush, a Joy board member. The pending acquisition, now awaiting Federal Communications Commission approval, has stirred protests because it replaced Frederick County's only locally based Christian station with programming that duplicates some of the material available in the area on three other NPR stations originating in Washington and West Virginia.

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