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Arkansas NPR transmitter fire investigated as arson

By Suzi Parker

LITTLE ROCK, Ark (Reuters) - Federal officials are investigating a fire as a possible arson at the transmitter site of Little Rock's National Public Radio affiliate, the station manager said on Tuesday.

Ben Fry, the manager of the station, KUAR, said that the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told him they suspect arson.

"They might ultimately decide that that is not arson, but facts in the case point to that right now," Fry said in an interview.

An official with the Little Rock office of the federal bureau, who declined to give his name, said he could not comment because the fire is part of an ongoing investigation.

NPR, which gets a significant share of its funding from the U.S. government, has come under scrutiny in Washington this year as lawmakers search for ways to cut spending.

The House Republicans' budget would eliminate all of NPR's federal funding, and Democrats have vowed to resist.

NPR chief executive officer Vivian Schiller resigned in March in the wake of a controversy sparked by a conservative group's video sting of an NPR official. The video showed an NPR executive insulting conservatives.

A man was indicted in March in Portland, Maine, for threatening to harm or kill two hosts of NPR's "All Things Considered," NPR has reported.

Another public radio station, KTXK in Texarkana, Texas, on the Arkansas border, was webcasting only on Tuesday because holes in a transmission cable and a fire destroyed the transmission line last week, said Steve Mitchell, the station's general manager. The problem there is being investigated separately from the Little Rock fire, Mitchell said.

Emerson Brown, a spokesman for NPR, said that stations are run independently and referred questions about the Little Rock investigation to Fry.

KUAR is located on the University of Arkansas at Little Rock campus. The transmitter is 13 miles from the KUAR studios on a mountain with other towers.

On Saturday afternoon, the station's signal went off the air. Tom Rusk, the station's engineer, found smoke at the transmitter building, Fry said. Rusk tried to enter the building, but the lock had been replaced, and he couldn't enter.

The Little Rock Fire Department was called and broke the lock. Investigators also discovered that a fence around the building had been damaged and copper wiring from the tower was missing, Fry said.

On Tuesday, the ATF discovered the presence of accelerants in the building, Fry said.

KUAR continued to operate with a weak signal on Tuesday, Fry said. Repairs could cost as much as $150,000.

"The signal varies," Fry said. "It is weak enough that it often depends on where you are standing and where the wind is blowing."

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)

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