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Howard University’s Public TV Station – WHUT – Is Up for Grabs

Howard University's Public TV Station - WHUT - Is Up for Grabs

There used to be a time when there were several black-owned TV and radio stations around the country, but those days are rapidly coming to an end; soon they’ll be as rare as unicorns. Actually, I take that back. Unicorns may soon be easier to find than black-owned media companies.
The latest example is Howard University’s WHUT-TV, which is not the only black-owned public television station in the country, but one of the last few remaining black-owned TV stations anywhere. However, according to an article in the New York Times, the university is seriously considering selling, not only WHUT, but the station’s spectrum as well. 
In other words, Howard is not simply offering just the station, but the signal on which the station broadcasts. This is not a simple case of someone just buying up the station with the possibility of continuing with WHUT’s programming; it’s actually taking over the frequency on which WHUT broadcasts. This means that it will be shut down for good, and the new owners can start an entirely new station with new call letters, and do whatever they want with their programming.
Not only would that be a serious blow to the Washington DC area in which WHUT is currently seen in some 2 million households, but also a unique voice that especially caters to black viewers with it own original programming, focusing on black culture and issues, will be gone for good.
But Howard feels that it may not have another choice. Things have apparently been a bit rocky for the university over the past few years. For example, the Times reports that “enrollment has fluctuated, the university’s credit has been downgraded at least three times, and it has started multiple rounds of layoffs because of steep operating losses at its teaching hospital.” So it’s understandable that the university feels that it may have no other choice but to sell WHUT. It all comes down to Howard’s current president, Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick and the university board, which must make a decision soon on whether to sell or not.
The F.C.C. has set a price of $461 million for the spectrum, but insiders say that it could sell for less then that.
Of course, many are opposed to the potential sale of what they see as an important legacy, and some have launched campaigns to stop the sale; but it may all be for naught.

Sowande Tichawonna, an independent filmmaker who started his career 30 years ago as an intern at the station, said: “Maintaining the spectrum is of primary importance. That is what makes you a distributor, and that’s something that is missing in black media. It’s like selling your house and still paying the utilities. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Chukwuka Onwumechili,  who is a Howard faculty member, makes the point that, “For the larger community, I think, very often there is this sense that everyone has access to cable television and Internet, and so you don’t need traditional television over the air. But that’s wrong. We know that there are people who rely on over-the-air signals, and we serve those people.”
And Eric Easter – formerly of Johnson Publishing, and currently a member of the station’s advisory board – added: “When WHUT first started, there was an almost global strategy for what the station and school could be together. Could they broadcast to Africa? Could it be used for distance learning? As it grew, it became less of a focus of the school in general.”
He argues instead that the station should be investing in new programming, and modernizing its studios and re-establishing itself “as a leading provider of black-produced content for other media outlets, and a training ground for students who will shape the future of media.”
And one can understand their concern. However once again, it comes down to the age-old debate of who controls our images, and why so many former black-owned media companies are so willing to sell out?
True, times are tough, and it’s a real struggle financially to keep operating them; but don’t we care about who determines how we represent ourselves? For sure it takes sacrifices, but also a clear vision of the future, and how it can impact so many people in a positive way. It can’t always come down to a quick cash grab.

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