Julian Sinclair Smith, TV pioneer

April 20, 1993|By David Michael Ettlin | David Michael Ettlin,Staff Writer

Julian Sinclair Smith, a pioneer in UHF-television broadcasting and the patriarch and founder of family-owned WBFF-TV (Channel 45), died yesterday at his Roland Park home after a long battle with Parkinson's disease.

Although he had been incapacitated and unable to participate actively in the business, Mr. Smith, 72, continued to spend several hours each day in the large Channel 45 office, listening as his four sons presided forum-style over stations here and in four other cities. He collapsed and died while preparing for that daily ritual.

With a background in satellites, missiles and electronics, Mr. Smith entered the broadcasting business in 1958, applying to the Federal Communications Commission for an FM radio license -- recognizing the impact FM broadcasting and its clear signal would have on commercial radio operations almost exclusively found on the AM band.

His station, WFMM-FM (93.1), went on the air two years later as a classical music 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.

Born in Baltimore, the son of a grain exporter, Mr. Smith was a graduate of Boys' Latin School.

His fascination with circuitry led to an assignment during World War II at the Great Lakes Naval Station, instructing navigators on the intricacies of sonar. He returned after the war to study electrical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, while working as an engineer at WFBR-AM, then one of the leading radio stations in town.

Graduating in 1952, he bought a downtown electronics trade school that remained in operation until 1979, and began a series of aerospace engineering jobs with the Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory, Martin Marietta and Fairchild-Hiller.

But he had his sights set on something more.

In a 1991 Sun interview, Mr. Smith's son, Fred, recalled his father's early thoughts on getting into the broadcasting field as they listened to the popular WCAO-AM station: "Dad said to me, 'In 10 or 15 years, nobody will be listening to that. . . .The technology will not be as good or clear as what's coming down the line from FM.' "

Much as he had recognized the potential of FM in commercial radio, Mr. Smith began thinking about the budding ultrahigh frequency, UHF, television technology in the early 1960s. A year after the FCC required UHF-receiving capabilities in all new TV sets in 1964, Mr. Smith and some engineer friends applied for a license.

Channel 45 went on the air with a formula largely dependent on a stock of old movies, syndicated reruns and children's shows.

To get the station off the ground, wife Carolyn Smith said, the family put up "every penny we had." Published accounts put the costs of starting the station at $1.3 million, and program purchases at more than $3 million.

Mr. Smith sold his radio station in 1974 to Nationwide Communications, which changed the call letters to WPOC and the format to country music. He used the money to launch WPGH-TV in Pittsburgh, starting an expansion of the family's UHF broadcast holdings that now also includes WTTE in Columbus, Ohio; WIIB in Indianapolis; and WTTA in Tampa, Fla..

Through the 1980s, the family bought out minority stockholders, affiliated with the new Fox network and, in 1991, launched the Baltimore station's prime-time "News at 10" to compete with the traditional 11 p.m. news shows of the city's dominant stations.

Mr. Smith is survived by his wife of 44 years, the former Carolyn Beth Cunningham; his sons, Frederick G. Smith of Cockeysville, David D. Smith of Lutherville, Julian Duncan Smith of Roland Park and Robert E. Smith of Glyndon; two brothers, retired Army Col. Henry D.G. Smith of Charleston, S.C., and Michael Cresap Smith of Baltimore; and 13 grandchildren.

The family planned to receive visitors from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. today and tomorrow at the Burgee-Henss funeral home, 3631 Falls Road. Services will be private, with burial in a family plot in Keyser, W.Va.

The family suggested memorial donations to the American Parkinson Disease Association, 60 Bay St., Suite 401, Staten Island, N.Y. 10301.

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