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Lutheran Church threatened by $12 million loss in FCC fight.

One of the oldest radio stations in St. Louis, KFUO-AM founded in 1924, and the oldest FM station in the area, KFUO-FM founded in 1948, are in serious danger of losing their licenses.

Both stations are owned by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the most conservative branch of the Lutheran Church in America. The AM station broadcasts religious programming and the FM station has a classical music format.

In January 1990, the St. Louis Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to not renew KFUO-AM-FM's licenses because of racial discrimination in the stations' hiring practices.

To make matters worse, during last summer's license-renewal hearing the FCC itself charged the stations with a "lack of candor" in several important areas, including their minority-hiring guidelines. The FCC found that the guidelines filed with the FCC were not the actual guidelines used by the stations.

On top of all this, more than a year after the NAACP brought its charges against KFUO-AM-FM, the St. Louis School District decided to sell its own small radio station, KSLH, to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Citing the need for money to carry out desegregation and redress imbalances in education for St. Louis' African-American community, the school district ironically chose the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod over a dozen other prospective buyers.

In a second petition, the NAACP asked the FCC not to allow the sale of KSLH to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

A decision by the FCC on both petitions will be rendered in a few weeks.

Although radio stations rarely lose their licenses, the allegations are so strong and the FCC has recently put so much emphasis on equal opportunity that the possibility exists that KFUO-AM-FM might well be forced to end operations. That would mean a loss to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod of perhaps $12 million, representing the potential sales value of the stations with the license.

Institutional racism?

Dennis Stortz, general manager of KFUO-AM-FM, believes the charges by both the NAACP and the FCC are unfair. He says the confusion was caused by KFUO-AM-FM not knowing exactly what the FCC wanted.

"We do not lie to people. And we're not racists," he says.

But Charles Mischeaux, president of the St. Louis NAACP, firmly disagrees. "I think they knew what they were doing. I think it was conscious racial discrimination," he says. "When they needed a janitor or a secretary, they were able to find a black person."

In 1989, at the end of the license period, two of KFUO-AM-FM's 25 employees were African-Americans, one a janitor, the other a receptionist.

The stations' management maintains that, in order to do their jobs, on-air personnel, sales people and even engineers must be familiar with Lutheran teachings or at least with classical music. They say they were unable to find blacks with either qualification.

But, since only 5 percent of blacks are Lutheran, the first rule seems to put in place a kind of de facto discrimination. And in reference to the second rule, Mischeaux says that saying blacks have no knowledge of classical music is simply a "racist statement." He points out a number of symphonic composers, musicians and conductors who are African-American.

The FCC concurred. The hearing judge described KFUO's explanation of its hiring practices as unacceptable. He said they were vague and had a "direct adverse impact on blacks."

Mischeaux also points out that although Stortz, the current general manager, is Lutheran, the former general manager of KFUO-FM, Thomas Lauher, was not a Lutheran.

(Editor's note: Lauher's testimony before the FCC last summer drew protests from NAACP attorneys. Back in 1989, before he was fired by KFUO-FM, Lauher had written two memos suggesting that the station was lax in its equal employment hiring policies. So the NAACP contacted Lauher to be a witness for them and he agreed to be interviewed. He had already agreed, however, to be a witness for KFUO. But he did not inform the NAACP of that fact. During the interview with the NAACP, Lauher tape recorded the questions and turned them over to KFUO's lawyers. The NAACP's attorneys were incensed. Lauher, who now owns a radio station in Edwardsville, refused to talk to the St. Louis Journalism Review.)

Lauher, who is simply a radio professional with no particular knowledge of Lutheran teachings or classical music, but who is white, was hired against the station's stated policy, while no blacks with similar qualifications have ever been employed at that level.

David Honig, the Washington, D.C.-based attorney for the NAACP, says this kind of unseen discrimination is a real problem in our society.

"It's discrimination that nobody cares about," he says. "A more liberal Christian denomination might have noticed this, but the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod did not. They said those positions needed a Lutheran, but in reality that had nothing to do with the job requirements. It's just run-of-the mill, good old-fashioned discrimination."

Who owns the airwaves?

One source close to station management agrees with Honig. The source says KFUO-AM-FM have held their licenses for so long that they saw their renewal as mostly a formality. He says management believed they could run the stations any way they saw fit and all but ignored FCC rules. It isn't so much that they are racists, he says, but that they are stodgy, older white men who didn't even think about equal employment opportunity.

Stortz does not come right out and agree with that idea but he says the challenge from the NAACP came as a "real kick in the pants" to KFUO.

"We have revised our recruitment policies," he says. "We're not here to snub the NAACP or the FCC. This has been a blotch on our reputation and we intend to redress it."

But even if KFUO-AM-FM manages to squeak through with only a fine -- as much as $250,000 -- the case highlights the confusion surrounding the FCC system and the basic question of who owns the airwaves and what that means.

Through a series of bills in the 1920s and '30s, the U.S. Congress held that the airwaves over which radio stations broadcast were owned by the public at large. The federal government decided that stations could use the airwaves free of charge but, in return, a social compact existed between broadcasters and the American people. Eventually, the FCC was created to license, regulate and oversee the broadcast industry in the interest of the public.

The FCC, however, has never strictly enforced its own rules and stations have come to see the airwaves as more or less their own property -- as long as they fill out the proper government forms. The hard question of what is really the public good when it comes to radio and television stations has never been asked in the past.

But the new FCC chairman, Reed Hundt, now seems to be addressing that very question. He has stated publicly that he wants to "reexamine, redefine, restate and renew the social compact between the public and the broadcasting industry." That apparently translates, in part, into more minority hiring and more minority ownership.

Little wonder KFUO management now feels unfairly used by the FCC's actions after all these years of indifference. And little wonder the NAACP has forced the FCC's hand in its pledge to enact equal employment opportunities.

The little station in the middle

Another kind of confusion surrounds the sale of KSLH, the school district's station. Although KSLH's signal is weak, its license allows the frequency's owner to boost its power up to 100,000 watts, which would give the station tremendous range. Several organizations, including the University of Missouri--St. Louis, Southern Illinois University--Edwardsville, and the Rev. Larry Rice's broadcasting company, were anxious to acquire the KSLH license.

These organizations were shocked when the St. Louis School Board announced the sale of KSLH to KFUO more than a year after the NAACP brought its charges against the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

But William Pearson, assistant superintendent of the St. Louis School District, says the school board didn't know about the NAACP charges until after the sale was agreed upon and the papers were being filed with the FCC. He adds, however, that despite the charges of racial discrimination he is "completely comfortable receiving money from KFUO."

Money, in fact, might be the key issue here. Sources say that other offers contained higher total packages but KFUO's cash amount, $1 million, was more than twice the cash offer from the next highest bidder.

"We were very interested in acquiring the frequency," says Don Driemeier, deputy chancellor of UMSL. "Several public-radio organizations around the country have a two-station format, and we were interested in having a second station for classical music. If the station comes back on the market, we would seriously review the situation again."

That may not happen, though. Both the school district and KFUO seem prepared to go through with the sale if the FCC does not rule against it. Until then the little radio station with vast potential just sits there being operated at low power.

If both the sales decision and the discrimination decision go against KFUO, Stortz says the cases will be appealed. The whole situation could take years to resolve.

Ed Bishop is a contributing writer of SJR.
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Title Annotation:Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's radio stations may licenses due to discriminatory hiring practices
Author:Bishop, Ed
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Dec 1, 1994
Words:1546
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