Louisiana Radio War

In a battle between two Goliaths, The New York Times somehow spots a David.


If you read The New York Times, you probably saw a front-page story yesterday about a conflict between American Family Radio, a Christian conservative network run by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, and National Public Radio, a secular liberal network partly funded by the federal government. At issue was the state of broadcasting in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where Wildmon's network, the Times reports, "knocked two NPR affiliate stations off the local airwaves last year, transforming this southwest Louisiana community of 95,000 people into the most populous place in the country where 'All Things Considered' cannot be heard." Similar incursions have taken place in Oregon and Indiana and have been narrowly avoided elsewhere, as the Tupelo, Mississippi-based Christian operation extends its tentacles.

I have no great affection for either network, and I'm not especially interested in defending American Family Radio's behavior. But the article's slant toward NPR is extraordinary. Reporter Blaine Harden opens his piece by implying that Wildmon is deliberately driving public stations off the air because he disapproves of their content—a plausible thesis, but not a proven one. He later points out that Wildmon's stations have little or no local content, while "radio industry analysts agree that public stations usually carry more local news and offer programs more closely tied to the communities they serve."

In fact, the stations that were pushed off the air carried no local programming at all. They were translators—low-power outlets that simply repeat the signal of a bigger transmitter located elsewhere. This isn't a battle between David and Goliath, between scrappy small stations and a big bully from Tupelo. It's a battle between two Goliaths, each with its own vision for the putatively noncommercial section of the FM band. (In practice, neither network is very noncommercial.)

If there's a flaw here, it's in the law. Rather than allowing high-power transmitters to knock low-power translators off the air, the Federal Communications Commission should let translators originate their own programming, transforming themselves (if they so choose) from mere arms of an octopus into genuine local stations. This would, of course, require the FCC to take a more permissive attitude toward low-power broadcasting, a notion that never fails to anger the established radio industry, NPR included.

And if there's a story here, it's in the battle between two giants. One represents the cultural right and is based in Mississippi; the other represents the cultural left—these days, the cultural center-left—and is based in D.C. The former is a slick, centralized alternative to low-budget independent Christian stations; the latter is a slick, centralized alternative to noncommercial community radio. Both have friends at the FCC, but only one has friends at The New York Times.