Baltimore family has carved out a television empire


June 02, 1991|By Eric Siegel

You only need to be around the Smiths -- patriarch Julian, mother Carolyn and sons Fred, David, Duncan and Robert -- for a few minutes before coming to the realization that they seem like a typical television family. Not the founders and owners of a station, which is what they are, having launched WBFF-TV (Fox 45) 20 years ago and run it ever since, but the subject of their own show. And not one of the hip new comedies that air on their outlet, but a warm and wry sitcom from the early days of TV, kind of a cross between "My Three (or should it be Four?) Sons" and "Father Knows Best."

Listen as they gather in the stately Roland Park home of the parents to talk about themselves and the station, the sons joking and wisecracking and chiding one another as if they are at some sort of bawdy class reunion, adding to each other's thoughts, and ultimately deferring almost solemnly to the father, now confined to a wheelchair by Parkinson's disease and reduced to a few simple words of affirmation, and the mother, a quiet pillar.

The tale of Channel 45, and its founding family, takes an important turn tomorrow when the station launches "Fox 45 News at Ten," a nightly, hourlong, local newscast at a cost of about $5 million in new equipment, facilities and talent. The station -- which billed itself as the "telemovie" channel when it first went on the air on April 11, 1971, with 75 percent of its programming devoted to films -- hopes the investment will pay off in prestige as well as profits, narrowing the difference between Channel 45 and Channels 2, 11 and 13, the trio that has dominated the local television market for years.

"From an image point of view," says David Smith, president of Sinclair Broadcast Group, the family corporation that owns Channel 45 and television properties in four other cities, "when the news goes on the air, the marketplace will look at us as a virtual equal."

The potential of signals in television's UHF, or ultra-high frequency, band was something Julian Sinclair Smith envisioned far back as 30 years ago.

He was born here 71 years ago, the son of a prosperous grain exporter who took a huge hit in the Depression. But he was more interested in circuitry than commerce. He spent World War II at the Great Lakes Naval Station, instructing navigators on the intricacies of sonar, then returned after the war to study electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins, while working as an engineer at WFBR-AM, then one of the leading radio stations in town.

Upon graduating in 1952, he bought an electronics trade school downtown that remained in operation until 1979 and began a series of high-powered engineering jobs with Hopkins' Applied Physics Lab, Martin Marietta and Fairchild-Hiller. But he had his sights set on something more.

"I was listening to WCAO one day," remembers Fred, who at 42 is the oldest of the four sons, referring to what was then an AM radio colossus. "I couldn't have been more than 7 or 8 years old. And Dad said to me, 'In 10 or 15 years, nobody will be listening to that.' He said, 'The technology will not be as good or clear as what's coming down the line from FM.' "

In 1958, Julian Smith applied to the FCC for an FM radio license; two years later, WFMM-FM (93.1) went on the air as a classical and later light pop station. He built the control panels used by the station himself, on a table in the dining room of what was then the family home in Bolton Hill, and was the epitome of the hands-on manager.

"There was a song that when there was a transmitter problem everyone played twice in a row," says Robert, 27. " 'Amazing Grace,' two versions. It was the signal for Dad to head out to the [transmitting] tower."

"That was before they had cellular phones," deadpans Duncan, 37.

The sons became as drawn to the business as their father.

"Our job on Sundays was to clean the garbage out of the building," says Fred.

"It became a hangout," says David, 40.

L "Dad would give us soldering irons to play with," says Fred.

As early as 1962, Julian Smith began thinking of applying for a UHF television license. In 1965, he and a couple of engineer friends finally filed with the Federal Communications ( Commission; six years later, WBFF debuted with a mixture of old movies, syndicated reruns and children's shows.

To get the station off the ground, Carolyn Smith says, the family put up "every penny we had. And we had all the boys in private school at the time."

There was, she remembers, little discussion about taking such a momentous step. "It was a matter of him saying, 'This is what I want to do,' " she says. "He was not a person you could sit down and say 'No' to. I just held my breath."

Julian Smith was no idle dreamer. Far from it. He was more than willing to work, and work hard, to make his dream come true.

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