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During negotiations, Daystar tried to ease these concerns by offering to sell 20 percent of KOCE's airtime back to CCCD for local programs. But CCCD's lawyers warned that it might not be able to hold Daystar to the agreement, given the federal ban on selling airtime on non-commercial stations—and the fact that Daystar was already under investigation for allegedly violating it.
Following KOCE's announcement that it would sell to the foundation, Daystar filed a suit contending that the community college district had broken the law by failing to sell to the "highest responsible bidder." In April 2004, a Superior Court judge ruled against Daystar. Observing that money was not the only criterion to be considered in the sale, the judge allowed the foundation to purchase the station. But on June 24, the appeals court accused CCCD of engaging in the "rankest form of favoritism" by rejecting Daystar's bid and reversed the sale.
Now KOCE is back in limbo, and Daystar is gearing up for the next round of legal battles.
The KOCE scrap mirrors conflicts that have played out in communities across the country, as evangelical networks have snapped up non-commercial broadcast licenses, in many cases squeezing public television and radio stations off the air. Christian broadcasters now control about 1,000 non-commercial television and radio frequencies—roughly the same number that air NPR and PBS programming—and a handful of satellite public-interest channels. This is on top of billions of dollars in commercial media holdings.
Religious broadcasters are attracted to non-commercial frequencies because they carry relatively modest price tags; Daystar made $17 million by selling its commercial Dallas station and buying a non-commercial station with a stronger signal in the same market.
What's more, evangelical broadcasters' financial clout means they are often able to outbid their nonprofit competitors. But in many communities, residents have chafed at the idea of turning their public stations over to evangelical networks, which not only cater to a single faith but also espouse a right-wing political agenda. When Cornerstone TeleVision tried to acquire WQEX, a Pittsburgh public television station, several years ago, it prompted tens of thousands of angry letters and phone calls to local officials and the FCC. Community residents had a similar reaction when Salem Communications, the largest evangelical radio network, made a record-breaking $13 million bid for a Washington, D.C., public radio station in the late 1990s.
In some cases, citizens' groups have tried to argue that religious programming doesn't meet the FCC's long-standing requirement that non-commercial stations serve an educational function. That argument angers evangelical broadcasters, who contend that biblical teaching ranks among the highest forms of education.
The Daystar probe raises additional questions about evangelical networks owning non-commercial licenses, since Daystar's operations resemble those of its competitors.
"There are a lot of practices in the religious broadcasting arena that go close to crossing the line into commercial activity, if they don't cross the line altogether," says Andrew Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm. "Daystar's operations aren't unusual, although they may push the boundaries a little harder."
Many in the Christian broadcasting community agree that Daystar's approach is pretty standard. But unlike Schwartzman, they don't believe they're pushing the boundaries of FCC regulation. The problem, they say, is rather that the lines are blurry to begin with.
"The signposts to FCC compliance aren't always that well marked," said Dr. Frank Wright, president of National Religious Broadcasters, a Christian media association. "So the outcome of the Daystar probe could provide us with some valuable guidance—help us tell the lightness from the dark."