Digital TV may push stations out of picture Community stations may be forced to yield frequencies to newcomer

September 13, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

From its seventh-floor studio in a Greenbelt high-rise, tiny WRAV-TV Channel 58 airs a multicultural smorgasbord -- Chinese news, Philippine talk shows, Haitian music, programs 24-hours-a-day for a faithful audience that also includes Indians, Iranians and Vietnamese.

But its studio light could go dark one day soon. The signals of hundreds of small community stations across the country may be snuffed out by an economic and technological steamroller: digital television.

TV regulators say the move is necessary for technical progress and the larger good. Community TV advocates see it differently.

"These small stations are the only places where local and minority broadcasting takes place," said Sherwin Grossman, president of the Community Broadcasters Association, which represents low-powered stations nationwide.

WMJF-TV Channel 61, an equally small and narrowly tailored student-run station at Towson University, also is on the endangered list, as is WMDO, a Hispanic station based in Silver Spring.

"This is going to decimate them -- they'll be taken off the air, they'll lose their money, they'll lose their voice," said Grossman.

The technology of digital television promises better sound and picture quality. But to make the transition, the Federal Communications Commission must give high-powered stations double their current allotment on the frequency spectrum -- a channel to continue the current, analog transmission, and an extra one to make the switch to digital.

Although hundreds of displaced, small stations are applying for new channels, in competitive urban areas like Baltimore and Washington their requests could overlap or interfere with broadcast needs of the bigger stations that outrank them on the FCC's priority list.

"We're sympathetic to their plight," said Alan Stillwell of the FCC. "They provide a lot of good services and reach minority and foreign-language audiences. We want to do as much as possible to minimize the impact."

But the agency can't bypass the laws of physics, he said. Only so many frequencies are available.

Initially, as many as 45 percent of the 2,050 low-powered stations in the country were to be affected, but by changing a few rules and relaxing some standards, the FCC has reduced the figure to about 30 percent, said Stillwell.

"Low-powered stations are and always have been secondary operations,"he said. "They have to yield by either changing their operation or going off the air."

Those lucky enough to get a new home will probably find sur- vival costly. Obtaining a new channel could first require outbidding competitors at the FCC channel auction.

Assuming a small station gets that far, switching to a new channel can then cost from $20,000 to $500,000, and involve the purchase of a new tower and transmitter.

Already struggling on shoestring budgets, many small station managers are at a loss for solutions.

WRAV's channel has not been reassigned yet, but general manager Salvador A. Serrano is braced for the worst.

"I'm afraid we will all die a natural death," he said, adding that any major new expense for his station is out of the question. "We're at the mercy of the FCC."

The station started about five years ago with a $300,000 investment and has yet to turn a profit. No one knows how many people are tuning in, but Serrano estimates his audience in the tens of thousands and says it appears to be growing based on the more than 100 phone calls he receives from viewers each month.

If he's late getting a program on the air, he hears about it immediately, he said last week while sipping a soda at the small round hallway table he calls his office.

Around the corner, a comfortable couch and chairs and modest framed prints on the walls create a set that is home to "Valderrama's America" -- a twice-a-week news and talk show whose host, Maryland Del. David M. Valderrama, is a Philippine native. Last year, Valderrama, a Prince George's Democrat, LTC traveled to his homeland for the station to tape interviews with all 11 presidential candidates.

For someone like Imelda Abella, a Philippine native who moved ** to the United States in 1994, Channel 58 is a balm to ease the culture shock.

On evenings and weekends, it is the television station of choice in her rented room in Fort Washington.

"If you are new to this country, it feels like you're at home when you watch these programs," she said. "I see how other Filipinos cope here and it gives me some sort of idea how to adjust."

If Channel 58 goes dark, "it's not just Filipinos who will be affected, but many other races who watch these programs," she said.

Despite the station's slow but steady progress, Serrano said, the future is anyone's guess. "The people with the money are the ones with the voice."

The FCC has already given Channel 61 in Towson its eviction notice.

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