The public television station WHUT now reaches roughly two million households in the Washington area and remains the only black-owned public station in the country. Credit Zach Gibson/The New York Times
When Howard University Television crackled onto the airwaves here in November 1980, hundreds of people representing the city, university and broadcasting industry turned out to celebrate the first of its kind: a public television station owned and operated by a historically black institution.
Thirty-five years later, the station, WHUT, which now reaches roughly two million households in the Washington area, remains the only black-owned public station in the country and one of only a few black stations anywhere on television.
That may soon change.
Howard, which has struggled financially in recent years, is expected to announce as soon as this week whether it will enter a Federal Communications Commission auction to try to sell off its rights to the spectrum on which it broadcasts.
The sale has the potential to earn Howard hundreds of millions of dollars that proponents say could help bolster other parts of the university. But it could also spell the end of WHUT. That prospect has ignited a debate here on the school’s campus and among alumni over where the university’s responsibilities lie and how to best measure the network’s symbolic and strategic value.
“We are sympathetic to the plight of Howard — these are still difficult economic times for many institutions,” said Todd O’Boyle, program director for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, a public interest advocacy organization. “That said, it would be a tremendous loss for the public interest if Howard’s station went dark.”
Since its first broadcast, WHUT has given priority to local issues and minority voices not often heard elsewhere on the spectrum — differentiating it from Washington’s other PBS affiliate, WETA, and most public television stations across the country. It also provides a training ground for Howard students, who participate in internships with the station’s staff.
Over the years, WHUT has experimented with a range of original programming from black and other minority artists, as well as coverage of local politics and events at the university, targeted at Washington’s majority-black population. It is perhaps best known for “Evening Exchange,” a magazine-style talk show that was hosted for more than two decades by the public-radio journalist Kojo Nnamdi.
The decision about the station rests with the university’s president, Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, and the board.
The last decade has been a hard one for Howard. Enrollment has fluctuated, the university’s credit has been downgraded at least three times, and it has started multiple rounds of layoffs because of steep operating losses at its teaching hospital.
As outlined in a mid-October letter, Howard has several options regarding WHUT. It could sell the spectrum outright and shut down the station, trade the spectrum for a less-valuable frequency type and smaller payout or not participate in the auction, which is scheduled to begin March 29. The university could also try to take a middle course with a channel-sharing agreement that would allow WHUT to stay on the air as something like a renter on another broadcaster’s spectrum space rather than an owner.
Its decision will probably depend on how much Howard is ultimately offered for the spectrum, according to several people who have studied the auction. The F.C.C. has assigned WHUT a starting price of $461 million to relinquish its spectrum, but experts said that because the auction is done in reverse, Howard and other participating broadcasters should expect final prices much lower than that. (For the first time, the F.C.C. is buying back spectrum from broadcasters so that it can resell that spectrum to wireless companies.)
Gracia Hillman, a Howard spokeswoman, declined to comment on the matter. Jefferi K. Lee, WHUT’s general manager, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
While the station operates on a relatively small budget and is not a major financial drain to the university, proponents of a sale argue that it could stave off more painful cuts to the university’s core operations and could bolster financial aid.
As Mark Spradley, a private equity executive and Howard alumnus, sees it, opposition to a sale is merely “emotional,” a “premature cognitive commitment” made by people who have not taken a sober look at the details of the situation.
“You are talking about substantially increasing your endowment in a year,” Mr. Spradley said, adding that he had shared his views with Dr. Frederick. “That doesn’t come from picking stocks.”
But those against the sale — and even a channel-sharing agreement — insist that the issue cuts at the heart of what it means to be a historically black university, where ownership and control in the hands of black students and faculty is sacrosanct. More than 300 people have signed a petition called #KeepWHUTBlack and nearly as many had followed a Twitter account with the same name.
“Maintaining the spectrum is of primary importance. That is what makes you a distributor, and that’s something that is missing in black media,” said Sowande Tichawonna, an independent filmmaker and actor who got his start as an intern at the station in the mid-1980s. “It’s like selling your house and still paying the utilities. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Leah A. Henry, a senior majoring in journalism who has worked at WHUT, said she saw both sides of the argument but leaned toward keeping the spectrum.
“When I think of all the opportunities that Howard would have with millions of dollars in their pocket to help students, of course I would want Howard to be able to do that,” she said. “But on the other hand, I’m a journalism student and so I know as a fact as a journalist, I would not be trained in the manner I am trained in” if the station were to go dark.
The Howard Media Group, a coalition of faculty members and graduate students from the school of communications, issued a position paper last month arguing that Howard has a responsibility not only to its students but also to Washington to keep the station on the air.
“For the larger community, I think, very often there is this sense that everyone has access to cable television and Internet, and so you don’t need traditional television over the air,” said Chukwuka Onwumechili, a faculty member and one of the paper’s authors. “But that’s wrong. We know that there are people who rely on over-the-air signals, and we serve those people.”
According to Eric Easter, a member of the station’s advisory board, which unanimously opposes a potential sale, the channel’s ambition has been scaled back over the years amid budget and staff cuts at the station.
“When WHUT first started, there was an almost global strategy for what the station and school could be together,” said Mr. Easter, who also serves as chairman of the National Black Programming Consortium. “Could they broadcast to Africa? Could it be used for distance learning? As it grew and as it became less of a focus of the school in general, I think it just started being considered the AV department unfortunately in a lot of ways,” a reference to the audiovisual department.
He and others argue that rather than selling, Howard ought to find ways to reclaim the ambition of the station’s early days. By investing in new programming and modernizing its studios, they argue, the university could reposition WHUT as a leading provider of black-produced content for other media outlets and a training ground for students who will shape the future of media.
“We are living in a media-centric age,” Mr. Easter said. “Part of the call of the board and alumni is to remind the university that this is a major opportunity.”