Black Media to Take Another Hit? The Potential Sale of Howard University’s WHUT Considered
Media scholar, author and journalist Dr. Todd Steven Burroughs says the potential sale of Howard University’s WHUT to the FCC would damage the already worn Black media landscape.
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
According to the latest report from the Root from our next guest, Howard University president Wayne Frederick is considering auctioning WHUT, the university’s public television station, and for 35 years the only black-owned public television station in the United States, to the Federal Communications Commission for anywhere between an estimated $100-$500 million according to a university-wide memorandum released Friday.
To discuss the context and potential impact of this sale is our next guest, Dr. Todd Steven Burroughs. Burroughs is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, New Jersey, co-editor with me of A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable’s Malcolm X, and can be found online at DrumsInTheGlobalVillage.com. Dr. Burroughs, welcome to the Real News Network.
DR. TODD BURROUGHS: Thank you, Dr. Ball. It’s an honor to be with you on television. I normally enjoy us on radio, and so it’s good to have this medium to talk about TV.
BALL: Well, let’s talk a little bit about TV in the context of this potential sale. First if you would, just tell us very quickly what is WHUT and why is it so important? And why would this sale–what would this sale mean?
BURROUGHS: WHUT TV is both the television station of Howard University and a major second-tier PBS affiliate. PBS in Washington, DC is dominated by WETA, which produces the MacNeil/Lehrer newshour. Well, now it’s called the PBS Newshour. They’re one of Ken Burns’ main stations. His home station, per se. And there’s two minor PBS stations in the Washington, DC area. One is MPT, Maryland Public Television, and the other is WHUT. But WHUT is the only black-owned public television station, not only in Washington, DC, but in the entire nation.
So in terms of PBS affiliates, in terms of a station that has access to PBS programming, that can access public television documentaries, WHUT is it. It’s the only unique station that can do that.
BALL: Now as you describe in your piece, this is going to be a sort of a special kind of auction that Howard is claiming would be a great windfall of finances for the university. Could you talk a little bit about that context, the context of the state of the university itself? And the process by which the sale is set to occur. Or perhaps, would occur.
BURROUGHS: Well, Howard, as many people in Washington, DC know–maybe the rest of the country doesn’t know this. Howard is actually funded by an act of Congress. Howard is named after General Otis Howard of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The man was in charge of basically the major parts of reconstruction. So Howard University, the university named after him, is basically at the will of Congress. And so their funding comes from the annual passing of the appropriations bill of Congress every year.
Howard has gone through some very tough times. Howard is thinking about selling off their hospital, which would be a tremendous loss, because during segregation black doctors only had two places at which to study medicine. One was Meharry College in Tennessee, and the other was Howard. So the idea of Howard selling one of its pride and joy schools, one of its most historic legacies, is disturbing enough. This would be also as disturbing. But the president is saying that this is a unique opportunity, because what the FCC is doing is they’re trying to buy up as much of the broadcast spectrum as possible, and then give this broadcast spectrum, meaning sell it, to telecom companies.
So we’re going to lose television stations across the country so that in theory, I guess, we would have more internet, more access to wireless, et cetera. But [inaud.] of the public spectrum, I mean, the broadcasting is owned by the public. The spectrum is owned by the public. So to sell that to major corporations is a major setback.
BALL: But of course that’s what has already occurred with all the major networks as they exist. I mean, NBC and CBS operate on the same basic principle of being the stewards of public airwaves, which was given them in the 1930s, for them to make a bunch of money off of.
But I just wanted to ask you very quickly, in the few minutes we have left, what does this mean in terms of the media landscape? Particularly as it relates to black America? And why should people care about this? I mean, with all the internet options and television and cable options, and satellite options and et cetera, why should a station that we would have to admit is probably not as popular as many other outlets, why should this be a concern? And I would even want to add to that broad question, to what extent is it currently being used for any wildly alternative or dare I even say radical use? In other words, what would we really be losing? And what does this mean, again, for this black media landscape?
BURROUGHS: I’m very glad you asked that. WHUT produces programming that fewer and fewer people are producing, meaning they’re producing programming that is geared toward the African-American community. One of my favorite shows that they produced, the Rock Newman show, did an entire hour on how, for instance, the women of Washington, DC, organized the Million Man March. If programming like that doesn’t exist on a television network, very few people are going to stumble across it. The internet is wonderful. We now have millions of channels. But we don’t have centers where people can stumble into truth. Where people of all different ages, backgrounds, et cetera, can go through a dial and find something, discover something.
WHUT performed a very specific–and still performs a very specific programming need for black people from the ages of eighty to eight. And for us to lose that would be to lose the ability to program a station that would allow us for our own ideas and our own perspectives, historical as well as current, to be presented toward a mass audience. And I think that’s a very significant loss.
BALL: Well, Dr. Burroughs, thank you very much for joining us here at the Real News.
BURROUGHS: Thank you, Dr. Ball.
BALL: And thank you for joining us as well. And as always, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying, for all involved, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. Peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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