Radio station WEBB is sold owner says format to stay

October 19, 1990|By Michelle Singletary | Michelle Singletary,Evening Sun Staff

Dorothy E. Brunson, a prominent local businesswoman, has sold all three of her radio stations, including WEBB-AM in Baltimore, for just under $4 million.

When Brunson bought WEBB in 1979, she became the first black woman in the country to own a radio station.

Now the president of Brunson Communications Inc., she says she will use the capital from the sales to get the company's Philadelphia television station, WGTW-TV, back on the air.

Brunson sold WEBB and WIGO-AM radio in Atlanta for $3.6 million to Allied Media Inc. of Woodstock, Vt. WBMS-AM radio in Wilmington, N.C., was sold for $168,000 to a businessman in that market.

WEBB, an urban contemporary station, will keep its format, Allied says.

Brunson says she expects the Federal Communications Commission to approve the sales by December.

"I was out looking for money for my television station. Everybody was saying no," Brunson said yesterday. "It just wasn't a good time to get any kind of capital, so it just made more sense to sell the radio stations."

Brunson said she had spent the past year and a half seeking a lender so that she could put WGTW-TV on the air. The independent station quit broadcasting in 1984 and Field Enterprises of Chicago voluntarily surrendered the license. The FCC awarded the license to Brunson, who was one of 11 applicants.

Several applicants filed suit challenging the award. They accused the commission of giving her the license because she is black.

"It was an open competition. I won strictly on the merits of ability," Brunson said.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear it. Brunson said she was given clear title to the UHF station in 1988. She said she spent $500,000 in legal fees to acquire WGTW, which is in the nation's 10th-largest television market.

"Today, to get into communications and own a property, you need millions of dollars, and historically blacks have not had that kind of money," she said. "I had an economic responsibility to my family, and then a greater responsibility to the black community to make this opportunity work."

After paying debts related to the radio operations, Brunson said, she plans to spend about $2 million on WGTW. The station is scheduled to start broadcasting in January.

Appraisers believe that if WGTW stays on the air for a year it could be worth $16.8 million, she said.

"You can't become a big company if you don't take advantage of big opportunities," Brunson said. "I eventually would like to come back to radio but come back to a bigger station."

WEBB, with studios in the Park Circle Industrial Park in northwest Baltimore, ranks about 20th in the Baltimore market.

Founded in 1955 and named after jazz musician William Henry "Chick" Webb, the station had been owned by the legendary soul singer, James Brown. Brunson salvaged WEBB from bankruptcy court, paying $485,000 in 1979 for a station that had become buried under debt with hundreds of FCC violations.

Brunson converted WEBB from a daytime-only operation to a 24-hour format.

Brunson had been actively searching for a buyer for the North Carolina station, which had filed for bankruptcy. But she said she had not planned to sell the other two radio stations. The company's lender, California-based Securities Pacific, suggested she sell all three to raise capital for the television station.

Roger Amato, president of Allied, said a friend and venture capitalist at the lender told him about Brunson's dilemma.

"Although the radio industry is going through hard times, generally speaking, I thought we could put money into the station and develop a strong market niche," he said. "WEBB had a sexy appeal for us. It's been around a long time."

"We plan to keep the existing people in place to manage the station," said Amato. "We just want to provide financial support."

Amato said the community need not worry about WEBB losing its image as a black-oriented station.

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